Introduction, A clip of history from UAE’s experience:
Early seventies of the last century witnessed the official formation of the United Arab Emirates. Since that point of time, construction was of the most active industries in the area driven by the economy growth and the governmental policies of the GCC countries in general and UAE in particular.
The city of Dubai is well known as the most rapidly grown city that tremendously spread over 40km length along its coast in less than 50 years by which the old Diera city joined Jebel Ali to form the current Dubai. In addition to adoption of the latest construction methodologies such as post tension, precast, modular façade and offsite manufacturing systems in general, the industry couldn’t have achieved such large speed in construction without increasing the workforce.
Offsite Manufacturing growth in UAE:
Fasttrack construction methodologies gradually grew up compared to the overall speed of construction during the seventies and eighties while the conventional methodologies were dominant with workforce quantum driven by the low wage rate of iported manpower. While the first precast clad tower was built in Dubai in 1978, it took thirty years for the market place to adopt precast as construction option with very shy spread till late 1990’s.
Entering the 21st century with further demand on construction supported by the growing economy and the rapidly escalated real estate demand, marked the was point of change when faster construction systems became extremely important and offsite manufacturing,represented by precast and modularised prefabricated Fcade elements, demonstrated its capability to balance between time and cost.
From precast to Modular Construction:
The construction market witnessed another move towards lesser manpower utilization across the country responding to the government initiative to control the population of imported manpower.
Here comes modular construction as the solution since it reduces manpower through enhanced productivity and best quality provided thanks to the controlled factory environment and better working surrounds.
This shift is easy to reach due to the similarity between precast and Modular Construction from operation process perspective whereby the two systems are similar in offsite manufacturing principle, precast and modular construction are based on repetition, precast elements can be easily utilized in modular systems as they are the raw material for modular assembly and both systems rely heavily on design and engineering outputs.
What is modular construction?
Modular Construction refers to a construction method that applies to Buildings and civil works that seeks to maximize the off-site prefabricated components of the building, minimize the on-site construction activities, and minimize the potential for rework on site. The ratio of off-site verses on-site activities varies from project to project.
This concept is meant to deliver structurally complete building units (modules) to site and is described as volumetric Modular Construction. When the finishing items beyond the structural components are applied to the module, it becomes “Prefinished” and called PPVC (Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction).
Modular Construction serves, but not limited to, residential, health care, education, retail and hospitality sectors of construction.
Why Modular Construction? Any challenges?
Modular construction is the right implementation of the off-site manufacturing concepts by bringing the majority of site activities to the factory then ship the finished modules to the site for installation, final testing and commissioning and handing over.
Construction industry consumes 30% of the world’s workforce resources, 40% of the global energy and has the share up to 40% of the global gas emission. These numbers come from the fact that majority of construction work is done at site using intensively craft skilled labor based methodologies.
The main attributes to modular construction are:
Fast track construction, Early Delivery and Faster ROI.
Improved and consistent Quality RELOCATABLE and Scalable, On Demand Optimal use of Resources Better material waste control.
Improved and consistent Quality, thanks to the controlled manufacturing environment.
Reduced site work risks and better safety results.
Higher productivity and further ability for process automation.
Less disruption to neighboring environments.
Enhanced HSE environment Optimal use of Capital.
Modular Construction has its own challenges as well as the advantages. Those challenges are Structural safety and design sensitivity for handling and logistics, the system’s agility and ability to respond to architectural design requirements, the need for excessive coordination before starting production, the early selection and approval of materials by client, logistics, transportation and hauling.
Despite the fact that Modularconstruction, with the current approach to the industry, has reduces manpower it is still manual, workforce dependent industry and the main difference is that the activities are conducted in the factory rather than the site.
There is another benefit of labor reduction intiative in modular construction being the commercial aspect. The major labor cost to activity ratio (value based) lies in the first phase of production which is module assembly that takes around 40% of the total workforce per room for a value that does not exceed 20 to 22% of the total module value. Of course, the labor cost share of the total caost of product goes further higher in high cost labor markets like Europe or the Amercas.
This labor intensive production activities, in addition to production overhead and logistics cost keep modular construction struggling to compete with conventional construction or other off-site based construction methodologies and the cure to this issue is production automation in order to cut the labor cost. It is worth mentioning that reducing labor headcount reflects further reduction in supervision staff headcount and further reduction the higher staff required to control the workforce.
Automation in construction industry
Construction industry is growing very slowly in terms of automation applications and adoption. Unlike car manufacturing, machine production and It hardware manufacturing, this industry is still using manual operations all over the world and the little automation practices are mainly related to components production rather than full scalable buildings such as precast elements manufacturing plants, timber manufacturing automation, and recently 3D printing applications.
Modular construction is the most qualified sector for automation because it is based on a definite production process with the manufacturing chracteristics of full production line that should be utilised to reduce manpower demand even further.
With the exception to handful number of modular factories in the world producing light structural modules, the adopted production line in the majority of modular factories, especially those handling concrete modular construction, has one move after module assembly then the finishing crews move to the stationary modules laid in the finishing spots unlike production lines of other industries where the product moves along the production line to get finished by the stationary crews or robots.
Many scholars argue that the shift to modular construction off-site would impact the construction workforce, but the transition will be on long term pace. We all witnessed similar debates with the shift in car industry towords robotic factories and it was proven that the impact is not huge or can be handled by reducing the workforce to the minimum possible, converting the unskilled to semi skilled workforce then to well trained technicians capable to handle automated processes and build the suitable automated production line.
B3G Automation for modular construction:
For the last two years, B3G have been working on a bespoke factory design that relies on robotic machinery and automation to increase productivity and reduce manpower of the process and the result was the first automated modular factory of its kind that handles all kind of modular production including those based on concrete
The automated modular factory addresses the excessive labor consumption in production and offers the automation concept to the industry that, by default, enhances the product quality. The factory has a daily production capacity up to 1000 [m2] of built up area using 100 labors only. This is far batter than the current modular production practices that need more than 800 highly skilled manpower for the same daily production.
The objectives of this factory are summed as:
• Reduce the dependency on manpower for modular production.
• Enhance the quality of the end product by implementing automation in the majority of the production activities with strict quality measures.
• Expedite the assembly activities in the production facility.
• Boost the productivity of the overall facility.
• Reduce the cost of product through reduction of manpower and the corresponding control staff layers, higher productivity rate and minimal rework.
• Reduce the production overhead cost per product due to the higher efficiency and lesser rework. Consequently, this results in more competitiveness of the system.
The factory receives the prefabricated panels albeit precast, light gage steel or even timber as the raw material for its products while it is advisable to attach an automated production facility for those panels to complete the chain and eliminate the risks of market dependency and secure streamline panels supply. The factory can accommodate production facilities (and workshops) for the modularized finishing items such as joinery, aluminum fabrication and MEP modular units as well as bathrooms and amenities PODs production facility that can be integrated with this factory to control market dependency.
Modular construction is the right solution to handle and eliminate pandemics risks because it uses the minimum headcount of labor and workforce with excellent quality, better safety conditions, high health and environment standards and remarkable efficiency. It helps securing the projects timeline despite the lockdowns and movement restrictions.
Being a real manufacturing process, modular construction can be easily automated to further reduce manpower and, consequently, enhance the response to pandemics further; not forgetting the commercial advantage that enhances the competitiveness of modular construction against other construction methodologies.