COVID or Not, Prefabrication is Trending Up

Feature from Contractor Magazine:

With advantages such as faster schedules, increased quality and less impact on the construction site and surrounding area, what’s not to like?

Prefabrication and modular construction have been trending, and according to the pre-COVID Dodge Data & Analytics SmartMarket Report, “Prefabrication and Modular Construction 2020,” prefabrication and modular construction are poised to transform several sectors of the construction industry.

The Dodge report shows that architects, engineers and contractors that have used these methods plan to significantly increase their engagement with them, especially for healthcare facilities, hotels and motels, multifamily projects, and college buildings and dormitories. Critical trends in the construction industry, such as shorter project schedules and workforce shortages, are several drivers of wider use of these methods, and technology—like building information modeling (BIM)—is enabling increased use.

Part of the fab shop at MacDonald-Miller.

Take MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions, Seattle, a full-service, design-build mechanical contractor in the Pacific Northwest, whose primary fabrication shop is 80,000 sq. ft. of indoor space and 100,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space, and two additional project-specific prefabrication locations near its shop for large assemblies and storage. Its shop prefabricates duct assemblies, mechanical piping, plumbing kits/assemblies, equipment skids and modular racks. “Our prefabrication space has virtually tripled in the last year to accommodate some large prefab-heavy projects we are working on,” says Rylan MacCay, Operations Manager, MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions.

“We’ve always been on the progressive side of prefabrication, our first modular racks were over 10 years and the amount of prefabrication continues to increase—for new construction projects we typically have 70%-90% of the materials run through our shop,” says MacCay.

Prefab allows for better social distancing.Since COVID-19 began last year, MacDonald-Miller Facility Solutions’ business has remained nearly the same mainly due to the fact that prefab requires upfront planning and things were already in motion prior to the pandemic. But that’s not to say that internally, the company was not without its challenges.

“Navigating through COVID-19 was a challenge for all areas of our business,” says MacCay. “To support our healthcare and essential facilities, our shop had to stay open since the beginning and throughout all phases of the pandemic. We implemented strict distancing, mask, and sanitation requirements. To support these requirements, we staggered all of our breaks and added a third shift—we were already working two—to reduce density and make it easier to social distance.”

Advanced Technology

According to MacCay, the expansion of BIM and Robotic Total Station Layout is what allows MacDonald-Miller to increase its prefabrication volume. Both an accurate 3D model and the ability to precisely install are needed to make sure the systems will come together successfully in the field.

The company is also leveraging software to digitize its processes. “Digitizing how we work allows us to streamline processes, which reduces labor, lead time and increases accuracy. As we look toward the future, we are evaluating robotics, cobots (collaborative robots), augmented reality tools—like Spectar 2.0 with Microsoft HoloLens—to improve quality, optimize our workflows and leverage computer vision with AI for counting and quality control,” says MacCay.

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These contractors are truly positioned to break the historical stick building molds of mechanical construction and become an agile fabrication, rigging and installation company. The contractors who build data-driven workflows that support a manufacturing and procurement mindset are the most insulated from risk, and by far the most profitable.

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