The construction industry is a significant driver of economic activity in many countries. This holds true in Australia where the construction industry is the third-largest industry, behind mining and finance, producing around 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. It comprises over 330,000 businesses nationwide and directly employs over 9 percent of the total workforce (AiGroup, 2016). However, productivity growth in the construction sector is sluggish.

Alberto Escribano and Dr Tillmann Boehme from the Faculty of Business form part of the UOW ARC Industry Transformation Hub aka ‘Steel Research Hub’. Alberto and Tillmann were part of a multi-disciplinary research team investigating the adoption of pre-fabricated, load-bearing Cold-Formed Steel (CFS) to mid-rise apartment construction. Tillmann’s academic career is based on the adoption of the systems concept best known as the Toyota Production system to alternative industries such as engineering to order, healthcare, or as in this project to construction.

“The project team applied a supply chain diagnostic approach to our research to better understand the dynamics in the current Australian construction industry and to obtain field insights on a potential CFS construction adoption pathway.” Dr. Boehme said.

A considerable amount of time was spent with the Steel Research Hub partner companies, BlueScope, Cox and Stockland, and external construction companies, to understand and document current practices and review recently completed concrete construction projects.  The team was surprised to find that on average, 1,122 inducted people worked on-site during 55 weeks of construction time for the nine investigated concrete mid-rise apartment developments. The mean construction completion delay was eight weeks, and the mean time overrun on programmed activities was 195 days. However, not all time overrun activities were part of the critical path, hence the reduced impact on overall construction time. Two of the nine projects achieved overall on-time completion, but only because the project managers recovered earlier delays during the services and finishes phases. For the analysed projects, more than 60 percent of the total project delays occurred during the substructure and superstructure phases; in particular the formwork installation due to materials supply issues and inclement weather during concrete pouring. Hence, the phases with the largest contribution to productivity loss in concrete construction are substructure and superstructure, resulting in further productivity losses in the fit-out phase due to the efforts of time compression.

The project used baseline data to investigate the impact of a load-bearing CFS structure alternative to a mid-rise apartment. Due to the absence of existing CFS mid-rise construction projects in Australia the team had to use field insights from overseas CFS mid-rise apartment construction and contextualise the data for regional application by incorporating data from the local steel industry, fabrication times and cost, installation capacities, and trucking restrictions to name a few. The simulated outcome resulted in a considerable decrease in cost as well as time savings due to higher amounts of off-site manufacturing activities. The simulation identified further barriers to productivity improvements in the Australian construction industry as a fully integrated construction management system was not available. The team had to modify an existing 3D construction file of the building to make it relevant for supply chain and project coordination. Additional software packages had to be sourced to take the 3D model to 4D (time) and 5D (cost) to complete the comparison. The project is wrapping up at the moment and Alberto continues the investigation into the impact of pre-finished construction components such as bathroom pods and balconies on the overall construction of a CFS mid-rise apartment.

The analysis has shown that building mid-rise apartments with a load-bearing CFS structure is both feasible & desirable and we sincerely hope that the local construction industry will consider this technology. The supply chain has some way to go but it is ready to grow, adapt and become a core entity in the local construction industry. Earlier this year, Alberto left for Spain to develop and build mid-rise apartments using CFS; contextualising the designed CFS supply chain model to suit the Spanish market.