Can pre-fabricated components and 5D modelling help improve productivity in the Australian construction industry?

A group of researchers at the University of Wollongong has demonstrated that by including pre-fabricated, load bearing Cold Formed Steel (CFS) wall panels in mid-rise apartment constructions, builders and investors can save time and money.

In Australia the construction industry is the third largest industry, behind mining and finance, and produces around 8 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. The sector includes more than 330,000 businesses nationwide and directly employs over 9 per cent of the total workforce.

Yet efforts to improve productivity within the construction sector have been sluggish.

University of Wollongong’s Dr Tillmann Boehme and Alberto Escribano, as part of a multi-disciplinary research team in the Australian Research Council’s Industry Transformation Hub aka ‘Steel Research Hub’, investigated the construction industry’s supply chain to find out where productivity improvements can be made.

Taking a production system from one industry and implanting it in another is Dr Boehme’s speciality, having spent his academic career investigating the Toyota Production System (TPS), where the main objectives are to reduce overburden, inconsistency and waste.

“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 into the merits of greater adoption of CFS construction,” said Dr Boehme.

The Steel Research Hub team worked closely with industry leaders BlueScope, Cox and Stockland, to understand and document current practices, and review recently completed traditional concrete-framed construction projects. Traditional concrete-framed construction utilise reinforced concrete for all structural pillars and floors (superstructure). The construction method requires formwork for pouring the concrete as well as propping of floors till the concrete is cured. Once the superstructure is completed and concrete elements are cured, fit-out work including façade systems and intermediate walls can begin.

“We looked at nine apartment developments and, on average, found 1,122 inducted people worked on-site during 55 weeks of construction time,” he continued.

“The mean delay in completion suffered was eight weeks, along with a mean overrun of 195 days on planned construction activities. However, not all these activities were critical to the building completion and did not necessarily impact on the overall construction delay time.

“Only two of the nine projects achieved overall on-time completion, but only because the project managers were able to recover earlier delays during the fit-out phase.”

Dr Boehme discovered more than 60 per cent of total project delays occurred during the substructure and superstructure phases and, in particular, were due to issues surrounding the supply of formwork materials and bad weather during concrete pouring.

“The construction phases where loss of productivity was greatest was during concrete construction of the substructure and superstructure. This in turn led to further productivity losses in the fit-out phase because there was more that needed to be done in limited time,” he said.

“Based on our research it is fair to say that if we can provide prefabricated components such as structural walling, façade systems, balconies or bathroom pods, at each stage, we will reduce overall productivity losses.”

To prove the point the team went about finding baseline data to investigate the impact of adopting a load-bearing CFS structure as an alternative to traditional materials in a mid-rise apartment.

“There are few Cold Formed Steel mid-rise construction projects in Australia, so the team had to use insights from international projects and apply a local context to the data including local fabrication times and cost, installation capacities, and trucking restrictions, among other things,” said Dr Boehme.

A range of different simulation tools where identified and applied to simulate the construction project management using a standard mid-rise apartment design provided by Cox Architecture. Simulation tools included Revit (3D construction model), Costx (4D construction model including cost) and Asta (5D construction model including time) to name a few.

“The simulated outcome predicted considerable cost savings as well as time savings due to higher amounts of off-site manufacturing activities.”

However, the research also identified the lack of a fully integrated construction management system, contributing to the slump in productivity.

“A lack of integrated technology was a major barrier for the research team, and we had to modify an existing 3D construction file of the building to make it relevant for the supply chain and project coordination,” he said.

“Additional software packages had to be sourced to take the 3D model to 4D (time) and 5D (cost) to complete the comparison.”

As the project begins its final phase, investigations are now focused on how finished construction components such as bathroom pods and balconies will impact the overall construction time of a CFS mid-rise apartment.

“Our analysis has shown that building mid-rise apartments with a load bearing CFS structure is both feasible and desirable, and we sincerely hope that the local construction industry will consider this technology,” said Dr Boehme.

“The Cold Formed Steel supply chain  is ready to grow, adapt and become a core entity in the local construction industry.”

The research took a final interesting twist. Earlier this year, Alberto Escribano, one of the research fellows on the Steel Research Hub project, left for Spain to develop and build mid-rise apartments using CFS; contextualising the designed CFS supply chain model to suit the Spanish and Portuguese market.