Insights on panelisation and impetus for future growth

Automation and robotics create high efficiencies and increase production output

Bliss & Reels are a production machinery company and long-term participant in the Timber Offsite Construction conference and exhibition, and Sales Manager Jason Reints has shared his insights below on the local offsite market and the impetus for growth provided by technology.

We’ve been actively promoting panelised house building for several years now, as panelisation significantly improves productivity and build times in residential construction. If we look at construction times of detached housing, with panelisation, once the slab is down, the lock-up stage can be achieved in less than one week, and potentially the whole build completed in four to six weeks.

A recent study by RMIT has done some great work looking at the productivity of the residential building industry, showing that over the past 30 years the average build times are five to eight months, depending on activity levels. So panelised building has the potential to cut construction time by a huge margin and maintain these build times during industry peak demand periods. A time when these lead-times would typically jump. This provides a big benefit for the offsite industry, builders and home buyers alike.

Our partner Randek is a Swedish company which has been supplying systems for prefabrication / offsite construction for over 50 years. ln Sweden, panelised building is used in over 80 per cent of detached home builds. The Swedes use timber frame construction similar to us, albeit with larger timber, so this makes their systems easy to adapt for our requirements. A big growth area in Europe has been to use the panelised elements for making volumetric modules more efficiently.

A key benefit of the panelised building approach is the flexibility to apply it to a range of building typologies, such as detached houses, town houses, and mid-rise buildings. Prefab frames are already being used extensively; the key difference is to add more value with wall frames.

Automation is a significant area of the market; the introduction of Randek’s Zerolabor Robotic system several years ago has gained a lot of attention. lt is a flexible robotic system for making closed wall panels.  In recent times the speed & functionality of the system has been further improved.

The Randek system is designed for ‘mass customisation’ with the machinery reading CAD data files and completing a large variety of tasks without supervision.

In addition to the panelised building systems, Randek has refined the latest generation of the high speed AutoWall system to the production of wall frames with noggins.

Current developments in the local offsite sector are definitely moving to investment in manufacturing technology. We’re noting a greater shift towards automation.

Manually producing every house as a one-off, onsite, using transient sub-contractors, increases the complexities of managing quality and construction time. An integrated approach between the design offsite manufacturing and onsite construction of the house, use of 3D CAD / BIM data (Building Information Model), and CAD-connected machinery, is how productivity and quality in the offsite construction sector can be advanced.  In fact, this is what will drive a transition of more projects to be done offsite.

Originally when we would talk to people about panelised house building, it was a foreign concept, something happening in Europe but not applicable to the local market. Awareness and understanding of the approach has grown dramatically in recent years.

In regard to the pain points vs. opportunities for local offsite/MMC (Modern Methods of Construction), put simply 3D CAD / BIM & advanced manufacturing is where the 3D CAD / BIM model interfaces directly with automated machinery. In order to use the latest automation, builds need to be modelled in 3D CAD / BIM software.

To gain the most out of this design work, efficiency in manufacturing needs to be considered (in other words, DFMA – Design For Manufacture & Assembly).

Because of this we see the implementation of 3D CAD software packages as a key enabler for the building sector to move ahead with offsite construction.

By contrast, today many local building companies are using 2D CAD, or architectural packages that don’t generate the data required for automated manufacturing. However, there are many good software packages that can do this; some of the vendors include HSBCAD, CadWork, SEMA, Vertex, and more.

The ECI model (Earlier Contractor lnvolvement) is a major step in the right direction for larger projects. This allows DFMA to be considered upfront, maximising the benefits of offsite construction.

Mass timber has a real buzz around it currently, in particular CLT panels and Glulam beams.

European timber companies have led the way in the mass timber area, so there are some very mature systems available from European machine builders. Our CNC processing partner Essetre in this area demonstrates the point. Essetre has been making woodworking machinery for 40 years, and has experienced a huge growth in demand. Recently the company has doubled it’s factory size.

ln terms of build numbers, the top HIA data lists just under 75,000 starts from the largest 100 HIA builders nationally, so a five per cent uptake of panelisation for those builders would be almost 4,000 builds per year. lf the offsite/prefab sector could see a five per cent uptake of panelised building in the next few years, this would be a huge achievement for the industry.

The game changer in residential construction will happen when more mainstream builders offer products that have been specifically designed for offsite construction. This will brings the benefits in terms of cost, time and quality that are frequently talked about, but yet to gain widespread use.

The Bliss & Reels exhibition display booth including Randek and Essetre will be at Timber Offsite Construction 2022 on June 21-22 at Crown Promenade Melbourne.

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Acknowledgements to Build Offsite for permission to publish this article.

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