While the manufacturing industry has seen massive strides in efficiency, cost effectiveness, and quality, the construction industry has lagged far behind overall. We believe that is about to change. Here’s how, and why.
A Brief History of Manufacturing Practices in the Construction Industry
The industrial revolution changed the face of manufacturing in the 18th and 19th centuries, but had little impact on the construction industry. While manufacturing focused on developing interchangeable parts and establishing assembly lines, construction remained largely a custom business, focused on improving incrementally through materials and technology.
In the early 20th century, some small scale manufacturing principles made their way into construction. For instance, Sears began offering houses out of a catalog in 1908. These homes were beautiful, affordable, and constructable by amateur builders, thanks to precut and prefabricated components, and standardized construction processes. Over the next 33 years, Sear sold some 100,000 of these kit homes.
Sears offers affordable, prefabricated home "kits" circa 1908, constructable by amateurs
The true manufacturing of homes in a factory setting, however, didn’t begin until the 1950s, when inexpensive “prefab” homes, also known as “mobile homes,” became available. These homes could be delivered whole or in sections, carried on the backs of trucks. Cheap (and often flimsy), the homes developed a reputation for poor quality, and put a damper on the idea of “prefab” in construction for decades to come.
Nevertheless, the use of prefab has continued to grow in importance for construction companies, including on custom and commercial projects. Currently, it is used primarily by trades and subcontractors on a means and methods basis.
Today, aided by new manufacturing processes and construction technologies, prefabrication is promising to transform the industry in profound ways. Leading edge firms are integrating the best of manufacturing processes and principles into the entire construction process, from design to construction. Here’s how it’s going down.
The Challenge of Integrating Manufacturing into Construction
On the whole, the construction industry has been slow to adopt manufacturing processes and principles. Although a construction site is essentially an open air factory, it rarely runs like one. This is due in part to the complexity and custom nature of most construction projects, which has made it difficult to standardize processes.
The use of prefabricated components has been limited by a lack of visibility between the construction site and manufacturing shops. When building components are site built, it’s easy to see what is being made, how it’s being made, and when it will be ready for installation. When mistakes and omissions occur, or when the piece doesn’t quite fit with site conditions, it’s relatively simple to make adjustments.
Additionally, it has generally been impossible to accurately predict site conditions and develop design plans with a level of detail that allows for mass off-site production of manufactured parts.
New technologies, however, change all of that.
How ManufactOn Changes the Game
ManufactOn is a SaaS platform that helps construction companies plan, track, and manage prefabrication and materials handling. Their platform provides a cloud-based framework for coordination between all people and companies involved in a construction project, including coordinators, detailers, procurement, shop foremen, field superintendents, and project leaders.
The platform enables “just-in-time delivery of exactly the right piece,” says Raghi Iyengar, Founder and CEO of ManufactOn. “The platform coordinates the process of manufacturing through a collaborative framework, so everyone on the project team knows what is being produced, where, when it will show up, whether there are any issues that need to be resolved, and what those issues are.”
This means designers, owners, engineers, GCs, supers, subs, trades, and others can see where each manufactured or material item is, what stage of manufacturing it is in, when it will be delivered, and the specifications for each item. It also provides a platform for communication around scope, changes, and issues.
This visibility, which includes both big picture views and detailed information about each item, allows construction to be run more like an assembly line, with all of the advantages in cost, efficiency, and quality that manufacturing has enjoyed for decades.
How a Forge Integration Changes the Game… Again
ManufactOn’s new Autodesk Forge integration will connect its supply-side data to the Autodesk BIM 360 construction management platform, providing a single source of truth and real end-to-end management of the construction supply chain.
“What the ManufactOn integration does is connect the pieces,” says Iyengar, “between what you want to build and what happens between the manufacturers, prefab shops, and job site.”
With this integration, designers can leverage the wealth of data sources available to precisely define parameters for manufactured components, identify which portions of the project can be prefabricated, and access all models and designs for prefabricated units from inside Revit.
“You can be in the design model in Revit, and you can say that these are the things I want to prefab,” explains Iyengar, “and I want to connect them up with items in ManufactOn. Then you make a connection between the things tracked in ManufactOn and the things in Revit.”
During preconstruction, construction, and commissioning, Revit’s 3D models will flow into BIM 360, making all prefab information available to the contractors and trades who need it. Without leaving the Autodesk workflow, users will be able to see what is being constructed, where each item is in the manufacturing process, request more information, markup designs with change requests, provide additional information, and send notifications of issues.
During walk-through, owners will be able to view models for each area and click on items to see what will be manufactured, where it is in the process, when units will arrive, and how they fit into the model.
“What the ManufactOn integration does is connect the pieces, between what you want to build and what happens between the manufacturers, prefab shops, and job site.”
Raghi Iyengar, Founder & CEO, ManufactOn
Benefits of the Forge Integration
Integrating manufacturing processes into the construction workflow provides forward-thinking companies with the ability to gain the cost, efficiency, and quality benefits of prefabrication, on a much larger and more integrated scale than ever before. This provides enormous benefits, including:
- Early-stage clash detection
- Ability to incorporate field data into the prefab process
- Access to change orders and RFIs in one location, from job site to manufacturing shops
- Visibility into who is responsible for what, who is on track, and where problems occur (before they blow up into bigger problems)
- Avoiding the eternal game of phone tag
- Ability to quickly and effectively take site-built “contingencies” out of the field and into the shop, where they can be constructed faster and cheaper
- Improved quality management
In addition, ManufactOn and the Autodesk Forge integration provides everyone on the design and construction team, as well as owners and other stakeholders, with the ability stop any given process with a single “STOP” button. This ability borrows from the Lean philosophy in manufacturing, and provides substantial savings by empowering everyone on the site to stop work on any portion of the project when they identify a problem–before it becomes a bigger problem.
Stories from the Field:"The guys in the field called into the shop to say that they were missing two spools that were supposed to be there. With ManufactOn, the guys in the shop pulled up the activity history via QR code, and discovered that the supposedly missing spools were field constructed. If it had been paper logged, they’d have had to go back through the logs, and it would take days, and still not be clear whose responsibility it was. With it integrated that way, it was easy to see what happened and who was responsible for the fix.”
Brad Hartnagle, Marketing & Sales Director at ManufactOn
Could the Future of the Construction Look More Like an Assembly Line?
For those of us who have been in the industry a while, it’s hard to imagine a job site that doesn’t look, well, like a job site. But that may indeed be where we are headed. Modern manufacturing processes allow for flexible, custom prefabrication on any scale, and technology makes it possible to harness prefab for almost any aspect of a build.
As prefabrication and the technologies that enable it on the job site grow more efficient, and as integrations like ManufactOn and Autodesk provide simple interfaces for managing prefab and materials, it’s possible that the construction site of the future may operate more like an assembly line than a construction site.
Want to learn more? Check out Raghi’s interview with the ConTechCREW AT AU: