The construction industry has traditionally been known to be a late adopter of technology, so the findings of a recent report concerning the utilization and views towards prefabrication should come as little surprise to industry observers. A survey conducted by the FMI Corporation and the BIMForum found that while the average use of prefabrication on projects has nearly tripled from 13% in 2010 to 35% by 2016, over 85% of all survey respondents still per­ceive their prefabrication process as inef­fective or in need of improvement, and only 14% think their prefabrication process is effective.

The report, entitled “Prefabrication: The Changing Face of Construction and Engineering” , of over 150 specialty trade contractors and GCs/ CMs – most of whom work in the commercial sector – which collectively generate approximately $38 billion in industry revenue each year. What was most noteworthy about the report was not what it had to say about the prefabrication process – but about the construction industry as a whole, particularly this finding regarding the “effectiveness” of prefabrication: “Many contractors don’t know what they don’t know because they don’t really understand how to measure and track prefabrication efforts effectively.” And much of that has to do with the overall aversion to change within the industry.

So what factors will drive the broader use of prefabrication and its success? The report cites three main areas that will help make prefabrication work more effectively for firms:

  • Culture Shift – As the report states, “Getting people to embrace new ways of thinking and doing work differ­ently is one of the most challenging as­pects of organizational change.” So in contrast to older employees entrenched in traditional construction methods, younger workers are far more likely to embrace new methods of working – particularly the collaborative mindset that is so important for adopting not only prefabrication but BIM and Virtual Design – all of which have become part of today’s construction process. And with the large-scale retirement of Baby Boomers from the industry, the timing may be just right for that change in thinking.
  • Full Commitment – The survey found that the great majority of the contractors (nearly 80%) use prefabrication on less than 50% of projects, and are considerably less effective compared to those who prefabri­cate on more than 50% of their projects. Practice apparently makes perfect (or at least more effective), and the report emphasizes that firms must adopt an entirely differ­ent business philosophy – one that is a fun­damental part of the corporate strategy. As respondent Aaron Thompson, VP of Design & Fabrication for Phoenix, AZ-based Corbins Electric shared, “Making prefabrication successful requires a cultural mindset. CEOs, project managers, estimators, superintendents—everyone has to buy into it. It needs to be throughout the entire company, top to bottom. That is the only way it will work effectively.”
  • Needed: A New Sequencing and Control Mindset – Planning and sequencing are areas where many contractors struggle to make things work effec­tively, and the sooner prefabrication planning is introduced into the process, the better. However, the report shows that less than a quarter (21%) of the study partici­pants plan for prefabricated assemblies during the design stage, and the majority (63%) of sur­vey respondents say they reserve one month or less for putting together prefabri­cated assemblies. As the old saying goes, “Fail to plan, and plan to fail.”

Prefabrication offers a myriad of benefits, including enhanced quality control, improved consistency, condensed project schedules, better safe­ty ratings, reduced risk and increased chances of winning jobs, but many contractors are still slow to embrace the technology. In an industry where firms are struggling to find qualified labor – a situation unlikely to improve in the near future – experience with prefabrication can be a competitive advantage for contractors. “Owners are going to have a real decision to make,” says Ethan Cowles, principal of FMI Corporation. “If they want a stick-framed custom building built for them, the risk is going to be the cost or schedule, because contractors are going to be hard pressed to find enough quality, experienced people to perform the work. And if they’re given an opportunity that almost guarantees that it will be delivered on time, and on budget, but it uses prefabrication, then they’re going to start making those decisions that favor the contractors that do prefab.”

According to the report, instead of viewing prefabrication as a threat or disruption, contractors who embrace it will be best-positioned to win in the built environment of today and tomorrow.