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Take UK and Ireland-based Vision Built for example. They focus on prefabrication and operate a factory producing light-gauge steel wall solutions for projects ranging from hotels to apartment buildings, offices, and homes. After the off-site manufacturing is completed, the wall panels are delivered to the construction site for installation.
The manufacturing process itself is seamless and embraces an ecosystem of software and hardware. A Revit model is imported into StrucSoft Solutions' MWF Pro Metal, an automated BIM framing solution in Revit for light gauge steel modelling. From there, wall, floor, and truss information is exported directly into a format readable by a Howick machine. Panels are then produced and cut to exact measurements according to construction documentation provided by MWF. Howick—which is also part of a two-year residency at Autodesk’s Boston technology center to research automated onsite construction—designs and manufactures steel framing machinery and specializes in roll-forming machines used for steel frame construction.
Thanks to Revit, StrucSoft, and Howick we can create these panels with an accuracy of 0.5mm—it’s that precise. The actual manufacturing time is very short. It typically takes one shift to make panels for 200 square meters floor area. When our panels get to site there are no surprises. The combination of our designs, the software, machinery, and manufacturing makes the whole process run very smoothly.
Recently, Vision Built stepped in to work on the high-density Herbert Hill housing project in Dublin, Ireland. For one portion of a six-story apartment block, there was a redesign of non-structural elements after construction had already started. The client wanted to make a couple apartments bigger and changed the window openings for better views.
Construction required infill panel walls between a concrete and steel structure for two-and-a-half floors as well as coordination to affix to the exterior cladding. Five hundred square meters of light gauge steel panels were produced, and about 400 square meters of that total were for external panels with cement particle board and insulation. These had to be strong enough to support the wind loads on the cladding, but also lightweight enough to go onto the existing structure. And it needed to be done fast, which Vision Built could achieve with Revit, StrucSoft’s MWF, and the Howick machine.
The clients chose Vision Built and prefabrication due to speed. They wanted the design, manufacturing, and installation done within about three or four weeks. It took less than a day to manufacture. In order to work around the trades’ first fix already on site, Vision Built had to spread five days of installation over two weeks. Using traditional methods, it would have taken them about two months.
According to McCarthy, steel-frame prefabrication’s largest benefits are speed, quality, and reduction of waste. Safety is also improved by lessening the dangers of on-site work with a less hazardous factory setting. And prefabrication battles one of construction’s biggest challenges: time.
“It takes less time to install these panels, allowing tradespeople to start on their work sooner and the whole project can be finished at an earlier date,” McCarthy says. “This means the client can begin earning revenue earlier and enjoy a reduction in the overall cost of the project.”
Nick Coubray, CEO of Howick, also says the lack of wastage—both in time and material—with prefabrication is indicative of the savings possible.
“In the U.S., if you’re fitting out an office space for instance, you’ll run stud and track, which is just big long lengths of steel,” Coubray says. “It will be cut by hand on-site and also fabricated by hand using tape measures. When we run it through the machine instead, you save about 30% of the waste because there are no offcuts. Everything is the right size, and it's all pre-marked and punched and clipped together. You're saving time on both the labor and the waste.”
Construction also faces the continual struggle for skilled labor that becomes more and more difficult to find as each year passes. With automation and prefabrication manufacturing, roles can shift.
“Construction companies can actually open themselves up for more challenging and creative work and roles,” says Byron Starnes, EMEA business development manager, StrucSoft Solutions. “It's no longer just about finding labor to put together these panels on-site—it’s about things becoming faster. Companies can start thinking about making their processes better and smarter because they also have the time to reflect on it.”