“Constructuring,” or the combination of construction and manufacturing, is increasingly being recognized in the construction industry as a way to increase productivity while meeting rising demand in certain markets. By taking advantage of prefabrication and modular construction techniques, builders can simultaneously manage labor shortages, cut costs, avoid weather delays, reduce job-site safety risks, minimize waste, and limit pollution, while improving overall quality.
Prefabrication and modular construction transfer some of the construction process to a controlled manufacturing environment. Whereas construction projects typically involve long lead times for ordering supplies, and frequently rely on storing materials offsite until they are needed on the job-site, manufacturers can manage their supply chain to achieve just-in-time delivery, which reduces inventory and improves efficiency. Thus, moving a portion of the onsite construction process to a manufacturing plant can produce higher-quality building components, while reducing labor costs and avoiding weather-related delays.
Constructuring approaches are likely to become even more widespread in light of labor shortages in the construction industry. The results of a survey released on December 18 by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found that 81% of construction firms report that they are having difficulties filling salaried and hourly craft positions, and that labor shortages are having an impact on construction costs and project schedules, with 44% of respondents saying that staffing challenges have been driving costs higher than anticipated. The survey found that because of these pressures, 32% of contractors report investing in labor-saving equipment, including drones, robots, and 3-D printers; and 28% of contractors report using methods to reduce onsite work-time, including lean construction, building information modeling, or offsite pre-fabrication.
Recent modular projects have already established a track record of accelerating project timelines by 20–50%, according to a report on modular construction published by McKinsey & Co. in June 2019. Researchers observed that while modular, or prefabricated, construction has been in and out of favor in markets in the U.S. since the post-war era, it is currently attracting a fresh wave of interest and investment in response to changes in the technological and economic environment.
The report noted that the construction industry is increasingly adopting new materials as well as digital technologies that enhance design capabilities and variability, improve precision and productivity in manufacturing, and facilitate logistics. “Countering the old reputation of prefabricated housing as an ugly, cheap, poor-quality option, some builders are focusing on sustainability, aesthetics, and the higher end of the market,” researchers said.
The analysis predicted that as all parties involved in modular construction move up the learning curve, construction companies that are prepared to make the shift and optimize for scale will be able to realize more than 20% in construction cost savings. The report further projected that under moderate assumptions of penetration, the market value for modular in new real estate construction alone could reach $130 billion in Europe and the United States by 2030.
According to the analysis, up to 80% of the traditional labor activity in a modular build can be moved offsite to the manufacturing facility, with some of the most skill-intensive and expensive types of work— such as mechanical, electrical, and plumbing tasks—being handled by lower-cost manufacturing workers, thereby lowering labor costs. Researchers estimated that the more standardized, automated, and controlled operating environment of a factory can double productivity above the levels achievable in traditional builds, eliminating considerable onsite downtime. Typically, the report said, one team of five onsite workers can assemble up to six 3D modules, or 270 square meters of finished floor area, per day.
Researchers therefore estimated that transitioning to offsite manufacturing could reduce the labor costs on a project by 25%, adding that the cost savings may be even greater after factoring in the productivity benefits of establishing simplified, repetitive processes or using advanced automation equipment.