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Running an Offsite Construction Factory

Lauri Tuulberg, CEO
December 31, 2018
5 min read

It's the last day of the year, so I thought I'd do a follow-up article on the first one written almost 20 months ago. Reflecting back on the period and going over some of the main events, it seems kind of overwhelming at first, so more the reason to write it down. Probably the most positive aspect about the building and real-estate industry as a whole has been that the revolution is not "quiet" anymore. There are increasingly more articles to be found online about the innovation happening in Construction and PropTech and 2018 saw the first "start-up industry" style investments and acquisitions with Katerra and PlanGrid leading the way. All this proves that the mindset shift is real, the disruption is happening and as crazy as it may sound construction might be one of the most interesting industries to be in the next 5 years.

In the last article I listed seven objectives for a period of 4-6 months. Although the timeline was a "little" naive, it's great to to say that most of the points are either accomplished or work in progress. I will try to give a quick overview of the progress and also introduce some of the next obstacles that we are tackling.

Management

The other completely naive assumption was that I could manage everything myself at the C-level as well as do sales etc. Having now a highly committed and professional COO on board, the factory shop floor is humming, MRP/ERP systems and processes are in check. I have time to focus my attention on Marketing and Sales, Product Development (more info coming soon!:)) and just plain old thinking, reading and writing. From a leadership perspective probably the biggest lesson and somewhat surprise has been that most people feel less stressed with clear authority, tasks and structure as opposed to a more laissez-fair self management start-up attitude (I am still processing these thoughts and it would be an interesting theme to write a separate article about). What I do believe more than ever is that the key solution for improving the construction productivity problem is getting as much as possible of the work offsite into factory conditions. By doing this, it is possible to shift the focus so that the process itself will pull digitalisation, supply chain management focus and the use of other Lean principles.

6S and Quality Management

If you are familiar with the principles of Lean Manufacturing, you have heard about 5S. 6S is the same thing, with Safety added to the key metrics. I agree that some of the Lean principles might seem funny at first but its success seems to be a more religious question. If the whole team believes in the goal and that it will improve our work, it will succeed. During the years we have had two notable accidents and a couple of near-misses. Frankly speaking the feeling after these events sucked and just strengthened our resolve to increase our efforts with 6S implementation and improving the safety in each working station. This is the other main reason why a high degree of prefabrication should be the goal from the beginning of a project life cycle. In a fixed factory environment, with a continuous improvement mindset it is just easier to control all these processes and help minimise the risk of health and safety issues.

MRP/ERP Information management.

Quite early in the beginning we realised that we wanted to avoid a huge overall ERP system like SAP and Dynamics etc. One of the reasons was of course cost, but the other reason was flexibility. Of course, we wanted to collect and use data and have the basic IT systems that every modern manufacturing should have, but at the same time we saw that since we are changing and evolving at a considerable speed, we needed our systems to be sort of modular by nature. Also we saw that applications that are specialised in solving one specific task are far better and constantly evolving not to mention that new exciting SaaS products are springing up every year.

We have a couple of applications (Fleep, Sharepoint, MRPEasy) that everybody in the company, from the office to the factory shop floor, is using. Then we have the ones that are used for specific tasks (HSBCad for Design, Pipedrive for CRM, apps for 6S audits, accounting and work time tracking etc.). These programs might have overlapping areas with the bigger ones but most of the time they don't need to communicate with each other constantly. A simple CSV Export might do the job or if an integrated workflow is needed we could use Zapier or an open API function and small scale extra programming. All this allows us to be flexible and keep our eyes open for new solutions for solving very specific problems.

Highlights

The most positive aspect in this journey has remained the same as in the previous article and that is the People. Our team, our partners, our clients and the companies we have somehow come in contact with literally all around the world keep surprising me constantly. From Welement's perspective the biggest highlight of 2018 has been the framework agreement with BoKlok Housing AB. There's has been a lot of talk about tackling the challenge of affordable housing but it is great to see BoKlok actually achieving this on a bigger scale. To see how their team works, communicates and plans has been a great reward by itself and although our part is not huge, it is just great to know we are contributing.

What's next?

For the next period our focus will be on the following:

  1. Systemizing design and the solutions best in line with DfMA principles.
  2. Increase efficiency with additional workstations and process improvement.
  3. Hire additional Project Managers.
  4. Product development MVPs.
  5. Further develop our Marketing and Sales processes.
  6. First steps towards volumetric unit manufacturing capabilities.