Eyeing Prefab for Construction

Aconfluence of unprecedented global trends are upending long-held building practices, boosting prefabricated construction’s growth and value. Indeed, the global prefabricated construction market is forecast to expand at a rate of between 6-7% until 2020, according to technology research firm Technavio, www.technavio.com, London, England. Further, the market value is expected to reach $110 million by 2020, a 39% jump from the data from 2015.

Nancy Novak, senior vice president of construction for data-center developer Compass Datacenters, www.compassdatacenters.com, Dallas, Texas, is excited that prefabricated construction opens opportunities for women and others who’ve historically been under represented in the skilled trades.

“When you have an offsite work factory, doing whole modularized construction, you can work 9 to 5, it’s clean, you can put a daycare right there for the workers,” she says. “It’s an environment more conducive to monitoring.”

Construction companies  are also facing and embracing new family-friendly requirements from technology giants such as Microsoft, www.microsoft.com, Redmond, Wash., which require their partner contractors to adopt family-friendly policies such as 12 weeks’ parental leave. As a result a shortage of skilled workers to handle the explosive growth will drive the need for prefabricated construction.

Nearly nine in 10 (87%) contractors say they are at least moderately concerned about finding workers with adequate skill levels, and half are highly concerned, according to the latest Commercial Construction Index compiled by USG Corp., www.usg.com, Chicago, Ill., and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, www.uschamber.com, Washington, D.C.

Balfour Beatty, www.balfourbeatty.com, London, England—one of the major players in the prefabricated industry—announced in August it recognized that “industrialized” construction is the best way to shift 25% of its current output by 2025.

But challenges remain. One involves how builders handle work-arounds for crucial aspects of construction that either aren’t drawn to scale or that use software solutions that don’t talk to each other.

Also, certain sites may be unsuitable for prefab construction, especially in residential construction. Steve Glenn, CEO of custom homebuilder Plant Prefab, www.plantprefab.com, Rialto, Calif., says locations with trees, power lines, and other obstacles can interfere with transporting modular units and using cranes.

One site required the modular units to be trucked on narrow roads and around tight turns. So Plant Prefab dedicated two cranes to the job. The transport trucks made it safely on their own, but it shows how the site itself can pose an obstacle. Another hurdle is architectural design—most of which overlooks prefab construction as an alternative, Glenn says.

“We’re getting better at working with architects, showing them our design guidelines,” he says, noting that the company was created two-and-a-half years ago as an offshoot of LivingHomes to build sustainable, high-quality homes incorporating modular components manufactured off-site.

Another hurdle is tolerances. “Out in the field, [tolerances] vary,” Novak adds. “How do structures built out on the jobsite get plugged in to products made with perfect tolerance in the controlled prefabrication environment?”

Autonomous Drives into Construction

Autonomous vehicles have leapt from the minefields to the construction zones. Driverless carriers are stealthily traveling behind traffic line-striping trucks and other construction vehicles to protect workers from hazardous drivers.

In one instance, the autonomous vehicles are controlled by the construction truck in the front, and both are loaded with software, hardware, and computer systems that enable the two vehicles to talk to each other.

The technology resulted from a partnership between two companies: Royal Truck and Equipment Inc., www.royaltruckandequipment.com, Coopersburg, Pa., along with defense contractor Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, www.kratosdefense.com, San Diego, Calif., which designs autonomous systems like tanks and boats.

The construction truck traveling in the front sends signals to the autonomous vehicle in the rear about its (the construction truck’s) speed, direction, and location, so the driverless vehicle can follow, explains Fred Bergstresser, government account manager at Royal Truck and Equipment.

Though only a few of the so-called autonomous impact vehicles exist, Bergstresser says state legislatures are becoming more open-minded to making autonomous vehicles legal because the vehicles can save’ lives.

“It’s changing by the week,” he says of legislative action to allow driverless technology.

Yet hurdles remain to more adoption. State governments and private contractors that will use the vehicles insist that they be safe, productive, and cost-efficient—and, up until now, the computational power to allow that has proven too expensive. Technology will drive down the cost, but it will take some time.

Another hurdle could be a mismatch between workers’ skills and a scarcity of managers needed to run automated machinery at construction sites, says Sandra Benson, global business development director of construction for Hexagon PPM, www.hexagonppm.com, Stockholm, Sweden.

Today’s do-ers—drillers and dump-truck drivers—lack training and perhaps the capacity to run autonomous vehicles on a construction site, and yet, remote managers are in great demand.

“Someone has to be at the controls,” to ensure that the autonomous vehicles are running properly, explains Benson. Even if young people start considering construction careers again, there’ll be a gap in supply and demand for construction managers for a while yet.

Another possible hurdle is worker resistance to automation, especially if it involves tracking the worker him or herself via GPS (global positioning system).

One company has addressed that concern by adopting a practice in which employees cannot wear tracking badges until they get to a jobsite, and must leave the badge there.

“It’s not a factory floor with repetitive processes,” explains Bill Wallace, marketing strategy manager for machine control for Topcon Positioning Group, www.topconpositioning.com, Livermore, Calif. “A jobsite is arbitrary; the land itself changes as tractors push dirt around,” he explains.

And, Wallace adds, a human being will always be needed to confirm that the job was done correctly, as well as to maintain and install the automated machinery.