When Deryl McKissack, general manager of design and construction firm McKissack & McKissack in Washington, heard that the electrical substation needed for Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport’s new terminal was being delayed due to supply chain issues, she knew the project would not materialize would come to a standstill.
Construction would proceed according to plan thanks to a plan to build components that would require the equipment to be installed externally at the terminal later on, a concept known as prefabrication.
Working in parallel rather than sequentially “saves the project about six months of time,” Ms. McKissack said.
Traditional methods involve transporting base materials to a construction site where they are assembled in a specific order. Prefabrication of parts like walls and stairs had become more important before the pandemic to save money and time.
Now, bottlenecks caused by delays in the global supply chain are accelerating the trend, as building off-site can prevent problems in one area from spreading throughout the project.
Factory prefabrication offers a more controlled environment, the ability to order parts in bulk for cheaper, and the ability to gather workers with specific skills in one location with a consistent schedule. The expert approach makes production faster and more precise, and advances in technology have made it possible to produce a variety of structural components such as entire bathrooms with toilets and sinks, and HVAC and plumbing modules worth millions of dollars.
Prefabrication methods have long been used in the construction industry, but there are downsides, including high transportation costs and the public perception that the result can look homogeneous. And there are other challenges, Ms. McKissack said. Planning and organization must be done further in advance and become more precise. It can be difficult to complete the process on a job site when adjustments need to be made.
Understand the supply chain crisis
But the benefits of prefabrication have become more apparent as the coronavirus pandemic and rising inflation have roiled supply chains around the world, and a shortage of skilled workers has meant manufacturers struggle to keep up with growing demand , said Alfonso Medina, chief executive of Madelon Group, a developer in Brooklyn.
Standardization makes building cheaper and more predictable, he said, adding that without it, “every time you build a building, you’re reinventing the wheel.”
Components built off-site tend to be complicated to manufacture but easy to transport. For example, Overcast Innovations, a Seattle start-up, makes ceiling devices in a factory and then ships them to job sites for installation. Manufacturing the rectangular panels can require expertise in as many as 15 disciplines, including electrical, plumbing, HVAC, lighting, internet and sensor devices, said Matt Wegworth, the company’s chief executive.
“Buildings are getting more and more complicated and we want to see which parts we can deliver more efficiently,” he said.
Companies like Overcast Innovations can buy in bulk, which reduces costs and, more importantly, provides protection against shortages. That’s important for construction managers because supply chain issues are “the worst we’ve seen in 10 years,” Mr Wegworth said. His company can move materials within a portfolio of projects based on customer needs, and he estimates that ceiling units manufactured by Overcast allow for cost savings of 15 to 20 percent over those assembled on site.
On a traditional construction project, something as small as the late delivery of temperature sensors can throw an entire construction plan into question, Mr Wegworth said.
Prefabrication also reduces the waste generated at a construction site, as additional materials such as copper tubing, electrical wiring or steel frame components can be reused for other customers. On a construction site, it may not be cost effective to return additional material.
An example of a building element that can be more efficiently fabricated off-site is the “head wall,” an architectural feature in hospitals that sits behind a patient’s bed and houses equipment for oxygenation, operation of fluid collection systems, lighting, and connectivity to the hospital hosts nurse call system. Building bulkheads in a factory is faster than having an electrician go room by room on a hospital construction site, followed by a medical gas installer and other specialists, said Scott Flynn, vice president of sales at Amico, which builds bulkheads and other products for health manufactures care facilities.
By integrating finished parts like end walls, site managers don’t have to source, order and manage every sub-component, which means they need to hire fewer skilled workers, Mr. Flynn said. During the first wave of Covid-19 illnesses, Amico headboards were used in field hospitals to speed up their construction.
How the supply chain crisis unfolded
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The pandemic triggered the problem. The highly complex and interconnected global supply chain is in a state of upheaval. Much of the crisis stems from the outbreak of Covid-19, which triggered an economic slowdown, mass layoffs and a shutdown in production. Here’s what happened next:
A reduction in shipping costs. With fewer goods being made and fewer people holding paychecks early in the pandemic, manufacturers and shipping companies assumed demand would fall sharply. This proved to be a mistake, however, as demand for some items would increase sharply.
The demand for protective equipment rose sharply. In early 2020, the entire planet suddenly needed surgical masks and gowns. Most of these goods were made in China. As Chinese factories ramped up production, cargo ships began shipping equipment around the world.
Then a shortage of shipping containers. Shipping containers piled up in many parts of the world after being emptied. The result was a shortage of containers in the one country that needed them most: China, where factories began pumping out goods in record quantities.
Demand for durable goods increased. The pandemic shifted Americans’ spending from dining out and attending events to office furniture, electronics and kitchen appliances — mostly purchased online. Spending was also encouraged by government stimulus programs.
Strained supply chains. Factory goods quickly flooded US ports. The surging orders outstripped shipping container availability, and the cost of shipping a container from Shanghai to Los Angeles increased tenfold.
Manufacturing components off-site can also increase their quality, Ms. McKissack said, because a factory provides a more controlled environment without the dust, debris, wind and rain of a construction site. The technology of precision manufacturing is also improved. All of this makes the process “quicker, safer and more accurate,” she said, and it can reduce theft and spoilage.
Labor shortages are another reason prefabricated components are gaining traction, said Raghi Iyengar, general manager of ViZZ Technologies in Peachtree Corners, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. The company makes software to help manage off-site construction work and has been deployed in about 2,000 commercial buildings.
During the pandemic, many older, skilled construction workers left the workforce, exacerbating an existing shortage, he said. Some construction managers had to struggle to find specialists for construction sites.
Prefabrication can help alleviate labor shortages as building elements can be ordered from anywhere rather than requiring local expertise. A small factory could be built in a strategic area; “A facility in Pueblo, Colorado, for example, could easily ship to Denver and other nearby cities,” Mr. Iyengar said.
Bringing together skilled workers in production facilities instead of at individual construction sites is also more efficient. “Try to find five pipe fitters if your schedule changes,” Mr Wegworth said.
He added that the prefabrication method also offers safety benefits: If you can “thin out the amount of activity on site, people don’t trip over each other, and fewer bodies improve safety.”
Some skilled workers prefer the factory environment where they can work indoors with a predictable commute, Mr Iyengar said, to job sites where they might experience harsh weather, early hours and awkward locations.
Mr. Iyengar predicts that the prefabrication trend will be more prevalent after the pandemic, regardless of the supply chain and working conditions. “It’s now becoming more of an expectation than a goal,” he said.