Eddie Pallotta thinks of himself as something of a pioneer.
Four years ago, after a 16-year career as a design engineer at GM Holden, he saw the writing was on the wall for car manufacturing in Australia "I thought I was not going to sit here and die a slow death so I started to look around."
After being introduced to the directors of Melbourne builder Hickory, he applied for a job.
Five months later he was working for Hickory’s Unitised Building division, which builds housing modules using prefabrication technology developed by architect Nonda Katsalidis.
While it was hard at first – "people thought I was from another planet," he said – Mr Pallotta eventually won his detractors over, first by getting his hands dirty on site, but more importantly by taking the project management and problem-solving skills he had learnt at Holden and applying them to prefabricated building construction.
Now Mr Pallota heads up Hickory’s sync modular bathroom business, which builds thousands of fully fitted bathroom pods every year. He has employed seven former Holden engineers to design bathroom pods. While also engaging suppliers from the automotive sector to build parts.
With car manufacturing soon to disappear, Eddie Pallotta and his crew may offer a path for other skilled workers in the automotive industry to follow.
The skills link between car manufacturing and building may seem tenuous, but as construction is industrialised and demand for prefabricated housing rises the synergies with automotive manufacturing technology and processes become clearer.
Mr Pallota’s team takes architects’ drawings and transforms them into working 3D models using computer-aided design (CAD).
"We look for clash detection, make sure things fit and work, and eliminate inefficiencies in the (initial) design," he said.
They also determine the sequence that prefabricated components should be assembled on site and the amount of material that must be preordered.
“I see longevity in this," Mr Pallotta said. “The modulisation of things is the way construction is heading."
Speaking at the inaugural Prefab AUS conference, Linsey Siede, director at Automotive Supplier Excellence Australia (ASEA), said the automotive industry could help the prefab industry expand manufacturing plants, improve assembly lines, and develop plant technology that makes off-site construction more efficient. He said ASEA was working with suppliers to take the leap and diversify into sectors such as construction.
Mark Albert, chief executive of MtM – which supplies parts to Ford, Holden, Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi – said the auto industry had "significant skill sets that are transferable across multiple industries and can help the prefab industry in a number of ways".
MtM is one of a number of automotive parts suppliers in discussions with Hickory to assist with building component manufacture and supply, said Hickory business development manager Damien Crough.
Another supplier, CME, has diversified into building lightweight products for the construction industry. Managing director Brian Hughes said while automotive production was slowing down, "demand for building products was ramping up".
David Chandler, who led the construction of new Parliament House, in Canberra, told the conference waste was one of the biggest problems in construction.
"In front of every building site is a huge rubbish pile, which would be unacceptable in any other industry."
He said construction costs need to come down by at least 20 per cent; otherwise standards of living would fall.
"More than 40 per cent of construction needs to move off-site and the amount of waste produced cut by 80 percent," he said.
Larry Schlesinger, Australian Financial Review, 15 August 2014