Embracing Digital Fabrication
A recent article in AECMagazine pointed up a transformation in the AEC industry that’s taking place so quickly that it may not even be on the radar for many consumers. In Embracing Digital Fabrication, the author compares the industry’s adoption of building information modeling (BIM) with the move to prefabrication of buildings. Whereas it’s taken over 20 years for BIM to catch on, prefabrication of building components is blazing a trail as we speak, or read as the case may be.
There are a few factors that are driving this transformation. One of them is the shortage of able and interested candidates for construction jobs, as explained in the eVolve MEP article Labor Shortage Persists. The industry must find a way to work through this challenge, and prefabrication of building components certainly is a viable solution. With a factory workflow, firms have the option of transitioning from contractors to employees with the benefits that can substantially lower turnover rates.
Reduction of waste is a huge benefit of the factory construction process. There is an entire industry geared around supporting the collection and removal of waste from construction sites – excess bricks, left-over studs, nails, screws – it all goes straight to the landfill. The waste factor is reduced to almost zero in a factory/prefab environment. The ground floor of the prefab movement involves building factories in which to make buildings. The evolution of modular AEC fabrication looks a lot like that of the aerospace and automotive industries of yore. Even better, the AEC industry benefits from the experiences gleaned by and from those industries.
Another factor is the high demand for production in a bullish economy with a booming construction market. The AEC industry, at least on a regional basis, is finding it hard to keep up with the demand for all types of building projects, which seem to come and go in waves. So the factories that make buildings need to be flexible enough to remain viable while the various construction sectors – offices, schools, low-cost residential, high-end residential and medical facilities – play tug-of-war for their fair share of the pool of architects, engineers and construction personnel. These skilled workers are facing a dramatic expansion of traditional responsibilities from document and model management to a more comprehensive scope that integrates design and documentation of assemblies, components and construction processes.
What’s needed in the prefab world is the ability to design with the intent to build in a modular way. And the skill is more in developing design ideas than in fabricating them. The AEC industry is tasked with fostering the development of architects and engineers who understand the limitations of digital fabrication and develop designs from the start that can be manufactured. Some day, the process of sorting and narrowing the number of iterations of a building’s design may actually be performed by artificial intelligence. Read the recent Applied Software blog article Generative Design for an explanation of how this is already causing ripples throughout the AEC industry. In the meantime, human beings need to be adapting to the digital fabrication changes and bearing the load.
And finally, digital prefabrication is being driven by the green movement. LEED international certification sets standards for buildings to be more efficient and friendly to the people who use them and to the environment into which those buildings are placed. The BIM process, with Revit as its centerpiece, has been the answer up to this point in making buildings more efficient, more livable, easier to maintain, and “smarter,” so they use less energy from the electric grid. Prefabricating buildings in a controlled factory environment can ensure strict quality control for meeting LEED standards. The BIM process will continue to be a building block in the world of modular construction, which promises to deliver higher quality buildings faster and at a lower cost.