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Managing Data in an Offsite Construction Company (3/4)

Lauri Tuulberg, CEO
September 4, 2019
7 min read

In the previous article, I wrote about the sales process and briefly touched the subject of how it is linked to our production management system MRPEasy. In this article let's talk a little bit more in detail about how this software forms the backbone for our factory operations and how it is linked with other applications. Since some of the data management features are quite straightforward (like stock control and production planning etc.), I will focus mostly on Procurement, Production Preparation and how they use BOMs coming from design.

Whereas a successful sales process almost never follows a straight predefined path, when we sign and begin executing a contract, it triggers several fixed processes and data movement sequences simultaneously. Regular construction almost always starts from a blank sheet, but manufacturing has for a long time implemented a Kaizen (continuous improvement) attitude to solving issues and at Welement we have tried to stay true to this mindset. Offsite allows to achieve this better because it is much easier to implement all these tools in a controlled environment, but it also means that we need to constantly take into consideration the prevailing attitude of regular construction. Controlling the design freeze, possible scope changes or just having the right data at the early stages of the value chain is not just "an interesting option", but a prerequisite for success.

Construction is plagued by the lack of information management and constant changes, so keeping the information flow focused yet agile can very easily decide the profitability of a project.

Since on the shop floor, the cost of every minute is tracked in real-time and most of our components are exported to Scandinavia where on-site time costs a lot, solving an issue fast and effectively is crucial and efficient communication is the key. So before I start talking about procurement, I will explain how we deal with communication within Welement.

Sorry, no e-mails allowed in the factory.

From day one we have used collaboration software instead of e-mails. For a long time, we used Fleep and also tested with Slack but recently, and mainly because of integration possibilities with other Office365 services, opted for Microsoft Teams. So when a contract is signed, a project team is created in Microsoft Teams and all the necessary documentation, negotiated scope details, and client drawings are stored in the predefined folder systems. From this moment, all the internal communication and file sharing happen in Teams (I will get into more detail about the Powrapps and other Office 365 functions that we are using in the office as well as the shop floor).

For us, workplace messaging allows for instant communication between different departments and to form agile teams when suddenly needed.

A communication channel can spring up temporarily for a project or to solve a specific problem. Or it can be permanently linked with departments or specific communication channels arising from actual necessity. For instance one of the coolest communication channels that formed quite organically was between designers and Weinmann workstation operators. Whenever there is a problem with CAM file or assembly drawing, line operators can quickly communicate the problem to the responsible designer and solve the problem as fast as possible.

Procurement & Production Planning

Because Customer Orders (in simplified terms estimation creates an order for the manufacturing) are already created in MRPEasy in the estimation phase, when it comes to executing the project, procurement takes the available info and quickly pre-checks the available materials that are in stock and compares the lead times to the start of production date. Project-specific long-lead items (windows, glulam, LVL etc.) are separated from the basic components that are relatively quick to obtain. Since the structural design process runs in parallel to this, there is often not enough time to wait for exact BOMs, especially for the long-lead items. Windows are relatively easy, but for instance, figuring out the exact dimensions for the engineered timber can sometimes be a balancing act. This process is especially complicated when we are dealing with clients who are new to prefab because they are sometimes used to the time-bending mindset of regular construction - there is always time until there is not.

Also worth mentioning is that because each project is unique we are dealing with a Make To Order (MTO) system. Each manufacturing order basically comprises of two components - a Bill of Materials (the list of ingredients and quantities) and Routings (production operations necessary to make the component). The routings are linked to predefined component structures and the final BOM is generated from HSBCad with already the same components ensuring that all the quantities are exactly as in the 3D model. Again, I will not go into more detail about this to keep the reading material as light as possible, but you can already start imagining the difference in complexity and possible leverage points for information flow when comparing regular construction with offsite. Keeping in mind that the product - a building - is still the same, just the process is different.

Design is data

Probably the biggest contributor to the new wave of offsite construction is linked with the possibilities that have emerged with the widespread use of 3D design. I am deliberately avoiding the term BIM here because the more we are operating in the field of offsite construction and developing our data management systems, the more I understand how far the industry actually is from coherent and functional building information models. Then again it would be unfair to fall into a pessimistic rant because the change is happening fast and already getting functional IFC model from our clients is becoming more and more common. But one of the main problems is that the people putting the information together often have no clear picture of how it is actually used in the later stages. It would be great to see a mandatory process change so that in the future the same project team (not just architects and design engineers) that will actually build the house would first have to build the information model.

IFC model of the 16 storey facade element project

The fact that design is data gets an especially cool perspective when you are designing something for machines, instead of people. Humans need the visual models to help interpret and communicate construction data, Weinmann robots, on the other hand, know their location in three-dimensional factory space and only need coordinate based commands to work.

IFC models used on the shop floor at Welement

For this, we rely on HSBCad and our designers, as well as the machine operators, are almost like cattle herders, feeding the machine information and making sure they don't run amok. In this sense, I am a big believer in cobots and freeing up people of strenuous jobs to concentrate on less physically demanding higher-value activities, than a bleak matrix-like future controlled by robots. The machines are great, but without the right input data and control the gains are only theoretical. We can and are outsourcing some parts of the design to external engineering companies but usually the bigger the portion outsourced, the more stoppages and problems we have because of design issues. That also applies to the BOMs we get from HSBCad, because if we are aiming to automate the process of generating manufacturing orders or any other workflows, we need to be absolutely sure that the incoming information is accurate and structured in the right way.

So if the future of construction is in a large part offsite and the future of manufacturing is automation, what will be the educational demands for the future civil/design engineer? Will she need to know more about structural mechanics or the basics of data systems? Or is design going to be completely controlled by parametric algorithms and AI will render the structural engineer useless? Before architects start rejoicing about the endless opportunities for generating unique forms, the cost and supply chain limits will most likely be part of the main parameters in the algorithms. Of course, this does not apply to all types of buildings but with one of the biggest challenges - affordable housing - most likely it could be the case.

In the next article, I will talk in more detail about how we at Welement use Microsoft Office 365 applications on the shop floor and also how we use and measure 6S. I will probably do a separate piece to sum it all up and also talk about data visualization.