Prefab is future of construction


Construction industry leaders are turning to prefabrication for most of their building components. By building large parts in-house and with the aid of emerging technologies, firms are able to cut the time and cost of construction while operating in a controlled environment.

In traditional builds, foremen and crews will enter the job site, take a blueprint, order materials, and cut and fit those materials on-site while the building is being built. In prefabrication, the process takes place off-site, with a different set of workers in a more manufacturing-type setting.

Jim Rose, vice president of Wayland-based specialty contractor Windemuller Inc., said electrical contractors are relatively new to adopt prefabrication.

“For the electrical, it’s fairly new, in the last five to 10 years,” Rose said.

In the case of electrical work, Windemuller will assemble a complete light fixture, with box, connectors and pipefitting, in-house before it gets to the job site. The assembly arrives on site as a kit that field workers install on-site.

“Whether it’s the switches or the plugs on the wall, they’re all pre-assembled and ready to go,” he said.

The process also can cut down on waste and be more time and labor efficient. Steve Huizinga, president of Grand Rapids-based Allied Mechanical Services, said prefabrication allows his workers to be more productive and work in a safer, controlled environment.

For Allied Mechanical, the process of prefabrication began out of necessity. The company began prefabricated mechanical work in 1990 when it took on a job for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. at its plant in Kalamazoo.

“You can’t do a lot of work there on-site efficiently,” Huizinga said. “If you weld, you have to have two people there, one to watch … (if) you strike an arc or make a spark in the wrong place, the plant goes ‘kaboom.’”

To prevent such an incident, the company began prefabricating pieces by having on-site workers take hand measurements and send their measurements to in-house workers.

As technology improved, Allied introduced building information modeling (BIM) technology to the prefab process. Computer Aided Design (CAD) workers now make a 3-D drawing of a build on a computer and are able to coordinate prefabricated pieces off of the computerized model.

“We take the 3-D pieces, and we cut them into bite-sized chunks,” Huizinga explained. “And we fabricate them in our shop, and then we ship them out and install them.”

Huizinga said the company has seven technicians who draw 3-D models for the fabrication shop and has invested around $1.5 million in fabrication over the past five years, with machinery, automatic welders, pipe cutters, layout tools and a 3-D laser scanner.

Currently, Allied is helping build Stryker Corporation’s new instrument division in Kalamazoo, a project that would normally take around 79,000 labor hours. With prefabs in place, the timeframe will be reduced to 45,000 labor hours.

“I got a bunch of prefabricated pipes (on-site),” Huizinga said. “All this stuff is ready to be put in. The building’s not even ready for it; concrete’s not even poured.”

The prefab model also cuts back on labor requirements. Huizinga claimed Allied now can take on twice the volume of work with fewer workers, citing another project the company is doing for South Christian High School. The project would normally require eight field workers, and the company is managing it with two.

“The trade shortage of men that we come across … that’s been a key thing for us,” he said. “How do we continue to do this amount of work or more when we know we’re going to have a shortage? So, we really grabbed onto this prefabrication side of things.”

Huizinga predicted the process by which contractors build is going to look completely different in five years from what it does now as more specialty contractors get their feet wet with the prefab process. But he argued it would never eliminate the need for field labor.

The change also will likely force a shift in skill sets for individual workers. For Allied specifically, it has eliminated the need for paper blueprints.

“Traditional paper drawings are out,” Huizinga said. “All my guys are using iPads … they’re all using a 3-D model to figure out how the building’s going to be built.”

Huizinga added his workers soon will be utilizing Microsoft HoloLens, a virtual reality headset, on worksites. The device will enable them, while in a building, to view a 3-D blueprint as it would look once the prefabricated parts are installed.

“We’re actually close to starting to implement it on a test site pretty soon,” he said. “We’re trying to find the right job to do it in. … I think, in the next five years, it’s going to be very relevant.”

Huizinga emphasized emerging technologies will not eliminate the need for basic trade skills, citing workers he had hired in the past who were skilled in CAD but didn’t know the trade. It took them about a year to learn how to make a 3-D model that could be installed in an actual project.

Comparatively, Huizinga said he brought a plumber and pipefitter out of the field, trained him in CAD, and he was productive in two months.

“If you have a guy who doesn’t know the trade, he may draw something in the ceiling, and we install it, and our welder goes up to weld it, and our welder says, ‘I can’t weld this. You drew it too close to the ceiling.’”

In the near future, builders may work in an industry where entire buildings are prefabricated. Structural steel for buildings already is prefabricated. Huizinga said with the addition of precast — prefabricated concrete for walls and floors — the industry could see entire pieces of buildings shipped into worksites and bolted together.

The structural integrity could be as good or better than a traditional build, based on both Rose and Huizinga’s predictions. With everything made in-house, workers don’t have to worry about field conditions or concrete curing issues.

“Aside from the efficiency created, I think you have huge benefits with safety and quality control,” Rose said. “Because now, you’re in a controlled environment with a crew that’s working and you can really be supervising what’s coming down the line, like in a manufacturing plant.”

Allied already is on board with the manufacturing process. Huizinga said his company is in the process of obtaining ISO certification, which is a manufacturing certification that proves the quality of a company’s management system.

“That’s a manufacturing certification that a construction firm is getting because of the amount of what we’re doing through our shop,” Huizinga said.

“Basically, we are becoming manufacturing companies, so your workforce is more of a manufacturing workforce,” Rose said.

Huizinga predicted, within the next five years, if construction companies don’t embrace new technologies, they will become outdated, particularly in the commercial and industrial markets.

“I think companies will become obsolete because they will not be able to compete in the marketplace,” he said. “If I’ve got a job and traditionally bid it at 79,000-80,000 hours, and I can do it in 50,000, that’s $1 million right there in labor savings.”

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