Sheet Metal & Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association

Mobilizing for the Future: Shop Technology

TauhiraTechnological advancements are improving all areas of the human experience. Countless innovations allow people to live longer, experience better healthcare, benefit from access to increased information, and thrive in connected communities on a global scale. 

According to a study by Statista, a world leader in statistical market trends, urban population is increasing by 200,000 people per day. By 2050, the global population will rise to 9.7B people and 6.4B of these individuals will live in cities. In 2018, contractors supported this massive growth by building an average of 11,098 urban buildings per day. To keep up with the rapid demand for urbanization, contractors will have to build an average of 3,600 more buildings per day by 2050.

As the demand for more buildings increases, the complexity of the job site is also increasing. At a time when building schedules continue to get tighter and buildings are becoming more intricate, there is less time in the schedule and physical space available to construct ground-up assemblies on the jobsite.

To address challenges around filling hourly craft positions, many contractors are turning to offsite construction to improve productivity and ensure that workers can build in the best possible environments while maximizing safety and project efficacy. 

Offsite construction includes any scenario where components are assembled at a location other than the area of direct installation. Assemblies are typically fabricated in an optimized shop and then delivered to a traditional “stick built” jobsite. Offsite construction includes the creation of everything from preassembled hangers to preassembled rooms. While offsite construction is a general term that encompasses many types of off-location construction work, three of the most common categories of offsite construction are described below:

  1. Prefabrication, the most frequently applied type of offsite construction, is the process of assembling a typically “stick built” or in-field process in a controlled environment or facility. 

  2. Modular construction is the process of combining multiple prefabricated components from several trades into one assembly or module which is then delivered to the jobsite.

  3. Panelized construction, a more comprehensive type of offsite construction, involves building walls, roofs, and flooring systems in a factory and delivering these units to the jobsite.

Whether first exploring prefabrication opportunities, or for those contractors who are veterans in the space, periodic assessment of the fabrication shop can pay dividends on reducing errors and tightening build schedules. Below are five practices that allow shops to run more smoothly and empower continuous improvement throughout the offsite construction process:

  1. Identify Opportunities: Often the greatest opportunities for work to be fabricated offsite are those tasks which are repetitive, monotonous, and performed in inconvenient locations on a site. From adding end caps on duct to assembling hangers, look for the tasks that can be shifted to a shop for huge time savings.

  2. Plan Shop Workflow: Designate and arrange task stations sequentially starting from those involving raw materials to labeling and loading final assemblies. The goal here is to reduce time wasted in moving materials around the shop and instead to optimize the flow of progress.

  3. Inspect Thoroughly: Proactively minimize costly revisions during the build process by planning the shop workflow with regular inspection points. Check for quality, tolerance, fit, and consistency with the digital model and ensure any discrepancies are resolved.

  4. Lean on Lean Practices: Apply principles to optimize the productivity of the shop employees. From clearly labeling workstations to ensuring that the appropriate tools are organized in consistent locations, manufacturing has provided many examples to pursue perfection.

  5. Track and Coordinate: In order to demonstrate the clear value of a fabrication shop, and to understand opportunities for improvement, it’s critical to coordinate with the design and field teams early and often. Strategically integrate steps to document, track, and update progress of fabrication to limit blind spots and increase process transparency.

There are many available solutions that help address the above strategies. Design software can help identify repeatable operations ideal for offsite construction and keep track of progress as offsite work is completed. In addition to using similar equipment from a jobsite within the fabrication shop, there are also a variety of hardware solutions that help increase shop efficiencies. Examples of products that drive increased productivity for offsite construction are listed below:

  1. Autodesk provides a suite of solutions for converting a project’s digital model into optimized prefab assemblies, communicating between trades, and driving improved project coordination. (www.autodesk.com/solutions/architecture-engineering-construction/prefabrication-modular-construction)

  2. ManufactOn software is specifically designed for project management of construction materials, offsite production, and onsite installation. (www.manufacton.com)

  3. MSuite empowers the creation of fabrication drawings, spooling creation, and assembly tracking through the entire construction process. (msuite.tech)

  4. Milwaukee Tool’s ONE-KEY TICK trackers can be utilized to track subassemblies through a fabrication shop, during delivery, and onto a jobsite. (onekey.milwaukeetool.com)

  5. Mestek Machinery creates duct work and sheet metal bending equipment able to reference the digital model for increased accuracy and optimized for the flexibility of the fabrication shop. (www.mestekmachinery.com)

Reaping the benefits of offsite construction does not necessarily require an upfront investment of entirely separate factory facilities. The ability to dedicate resources to offsite construction varies greatly between contractors, depending on size and geographical location. Regardless of the maturity of a contractor’s offsite construction expertise, it is essential to approach the fabrication shop with an attitude of continuous improvement and the willingness to explore new solutions. These best practices empower accurate estimation, improved scheduling, and productive labor – all of which lead to more competitive bids and increased margins.  

Tauhira Ali, Sr. Manager of Construction Technology | Milwaukee Tool

 

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