Change Leader: Standardization Shakes Up Steel Multi-Unit Construction
John Vanker is founder and CEO of Prescient, a design technology and automated manufacturing company that takes a new approach to model-based design and construction, primarily for the multi-unit housing industry. He founded his first development company in Chicago in 1990, specializing in urban in-fill and mixed-use projects. Sixteen years ago, Vanker and his business partner Michael Lastowski expanded the company to Denver to specialize in single-family home construction. Prescient builds on lessons learned from such experience.
Change: Prescient has two sides of its technology. A model-based design component introduces a grid and library of cold-rolled steel components (panels, trusses and columns) to the design process with a plugin for Autodesk Revit. Prescient software tools extend beyond this modeling phase to automate the bill of materials, aid scheduling, and improve the delivery and assembly of materials on the construction site. The other half is the manufacture of these components in a controlled factory setting that utilizes welding robots to speed construction and decrease labor costs, while introducing the efficiencies and cost savings of lean manufacturing.
“When we first began this venture six years ago, we had the idea to simplify and standardize what we were doing so we would start to repeat the things we were good at over and over again,” says Vanker. “We wanted to combat a certain level of customization or ‘reinventing the wheel’ for every project.”
Impetus: With typical drafting-centric design development, the architecture and engineering usually start at different times and go down different paths. During construction, the two disciplines try to match the design with the structural detail, leading to many process problems.
“There are a lot of opportunities for waste in these projects, starting with developing the design to the point where the plan has enough detail where you can build it,” notes Vanker. “At best, the plans are deficient in detail to have a really smooth build. Effectively, they never get enough detail to handle all the problems, and then you’re stuck with handling problems in the field.”
Modeling Advantage: With a 3-D BIM model-centric approach, each project begins with virtual construction. Prescient contributes early in the process, with its software platform forming the means for collaboration across stakeholders.
“We’ve recognized that the industry is fragmented, it lacks integration, and it’s inherently that way because there are a lot of stakeholders who have to come together in the design/build process in some fashion to complete a project,” adds Vanker. “That’s monumentally difficult with poorly integrated stakeholders, and model-based design is the element that enforces integration.”
With a detailed building replica in virtual form, designers can do takeoffs of materials directly from the model and exactly know the needed linear feet of cold-roll steel, HSS steel tubes, number of weld inches and welding gas, and hardware.
If each unit is kitted in or prefabricated, then the whole process is much more efficient.
Process Improvement: Prescient takes the computer-aided design (CAD) model and pushes that to computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) in their manufacturing plant. The model automates the bending and cutting of the cold-rolled steel, spitting out the lengths needed for each panel. These, in turn, are assembled on jigs, spot welded and then finished by the welding robots.
The company assigns a barcode to each component, which has a unique address in the building, and each truckload of components is delivered for specific stages of construction. Components are scanned onsite, with workers receiving details regarding the component’s location, and project managers receiving information regarding the pace and progress of construction.
“We’ve recognized that it’s difficult to manage the uncontrolled environment that’s happening onsite, as opposed to our ability to control and tune our manufacturing facility to lean practices,” states Vanker. “Our goal, through some of our technology and patents, is to take that controlled thinking and efficiency to the uncontrolled environment of the construction site.
“We can see in real-time what is being installed and when,” he adds. “We can see production values and productivity levels. By measuring worth in place, you can also measure the value of work in place. We can dial the percentage completely down to the individual component through these unique codes.”
Outcome: There are a number of efficiency gains and cost reductions throughout this standardized and automated process, including the following:
- Decreased man hours in the factory and job site, with robots in the factory and less-skilled labor needed onsite due to assembly rather than carpentry.
- Improved construction processes with the delivery of materials in packages specific to location and time needed.
- Reduced construction waste given the standardized components and a set grid that also conforms to standard material sizes such as drywall sheets.
“Knowing the hardware and materials and not guessing means that we don’t have to build in a lot of waste,” says Vanker. “We can be very efficient.”
Toolbox: The Prescient software is a plugin to Autodesk Revit as well as functionality tuned to the project workflow. The software automates the elements of the structure according to the design.
Read the full interview transcription here.