Construction is a laggard when it comes to innovation, but as companies including Laing O’Rourke, Hickory Group and Aconex show thinking differently pays.
Savings of up to 90 per cent on precast concrete moulds, reduced construction time of up to 40 per cent from using modular technology and making data-heavy technology easier to use are just some of the changes made by 2014’s Most Innovative companies that will change practices throughout the construction industry.
At Hickory, which employs former car industry workers to prefabricate modular dwellings, the company has adopted the mindset of a manufacturer, says managing director George Argyrou.
“Not to downplay construction, but if I have construction people in a manufacturing facility, it’s totally destructive,” he says.
“They use a different side of their brain. Manufacturing people work very differently.”
Laing O’Rourke Australia managing director Cathal O’Rourke agrees that innovation in the industry’s innovation will come from outside.
“There are definitely inputs from outside the traditional construction industry that are driving things forward,” he says. “There are still inputs from inside, but I don’t think they’ll be quite as radical.”
The increasing use of technology, in particular, is going to shake up an industry that has changed little in 50 years.
“It is going to be a step change between what they do today and what they do in the future,” O’Rourke says.
One of the clearest examples of the convergence of construction and manufacturing comes from Laing O’Rourke, which uses 3D printing technology to create wax moulds for precast concrete.
Precast concrete, used to create stormwater pipes for example, needs a mould, typically made from wood, foam or rubber. These are expensive, take time, sometimes months for complicated ones, and create waste.
Laing O’Rourke’s technique, which it hopes to commercialise within a year, uses robots in a large-scale 3D printing system that works at high speeds and uses a customised wax substrate – about 150kg an hour –to print large and detailed moulds at a fraction of the cost of their equivalents.
“We are having no problem proving savings upwards of 50 per cent,” says James Gardiner, Laing O’Rourke Australia’s design innovation head, who led the development of the system. “In some cases we are making savings of 90 per cent.”
As the moulds are made of wax, the wastage problem also disappears. “After the concrete or glass reinforced concrete is cured, the wax mould is lifted off or melted away in a water bath,” Gardiner says. “The wax is then filtered and recycled.”
In Hickory’s case, it has put its modular technology to use in one of the most expensive areas of infrastructure: hospital construction. Hospitals are generally designed on a bespoke basis, but the company, better known for prefabricated residential towers, has modified its modular panels, in collaboration with engineering firm Jacobs (formerly SKM), to cut construction time.
Up to 40 per cent of the construction cost of a hospital is for the accommodation component. By combining prefabricated modular accommodation with conventional construction of reception and administrative areas Hickory’s Argyrou says construction time can be cut by up to 40 per cent. On average it takes 24-months to build a hospital.
Every part of the hospital room comes in kit form which clips together. This has the benefit of reducing one of the biggest bills an asset owner faces: running costs. Walls are made of finished boards that clip to the modular frame, each with its own serial number.
When a wall is damaged the hospital simply orders a replacement panel.
“We cut a sheet and send it to you,” Argyrou says. “Your maintenance guy unclips the damaged wall and clips on the new one. If we want to renovate a hospital, you can do a room in three hours.”
The technology that turns a building into components is part of a separate wave of innovation that goes by the name of building information technology, or BIM. It’s essentially a 3D model of a building that everyone in the design and construction chain works on. This can speed up project completions and is itself an area that is subject to innovation.
The amount of computing power needed to process and manage the models has restricted its use to date to users with desktop PCs loaded with expensive software. Aconex, which ranks 43rd, has created ways for these models to be loaded into the cloud and accessed using a browser. Site managers can quickly load different models to check details, or sub-contractors can see where they should install equipment or structural elements.
“This involves connecting the entire project team with models and with each other on a collaboration platform in the cloud,” the company says.
Not only is this a benefit to workers in the field, but it also permits clients to see designs in great detail before they are built. For construction, an industry where costs rose steeply in the decade from 2000, innovation is crucial.
Argyrou points to his company’s formwork team, which builds frames and to hold concrete poured in-situ on sites, as a part of the business that is ripe for innovation. Without change they won’t be able to reduce costs, he says.
“We’ve got one of the best formwork teams,” Argyrou says. “We run it pretty hard but it is what it is. If you say the car industry did what the building industry did for the last 20 or 30 years, cars would have cost $1 million each.”
Michael Bleby, BRW 9th October 2014