Just a couple of years ago, I went back to the commercial modular/classroom/mobile office plant where I had my first GM job in the ’80s. I was 27 then, am much older now, but one thing hasn’t changed much, technology. The stations had the same kind of equipment, home build when possible, and heavy emphasis on holding cost down. In an industry that is highly competitive, not only from other modular manufacturers but from the construction industry in general, a dime saved drops to the bottom line.
When asked why they had not modernized saws, wall stations, or even lumber management—areas similar to where the component industry has invested in technology—the answer was, “Do you know how much that equipment costs?” It brought back memories of my many attempts to modernize in the past, with similar answers from above. Sure, they have gone from drafting to CAD, but only in terms of making the lines look similar.
Since the crash, more modular manufacturers are looking closely at what the building components industry is doing. They see component manufacturers narrowing the speed-of-construction gap—the gap on which modular predicates its value. When it traditionally took 6–8 months to dry in a commercial structure, modular with a concurrent construction process could halve that timeframe. As building components such as roof and floor trusses, wall panels, floor panels, and other structural framing aids are allowing site construction to speed the dry-in timeframe, modular has done little to increase the gap by improving technology.
I must admit, modular has a disadvantage when it comes to purchasing equipment. They don’t produce the same volume that a component manufacturer builds. The Board Foot production rate is much lower. Amortizing a lower volume over the same cost to acquire doesn’t make sense. In true modular form, doing more with less, the opportunity could be in used equipment. What was cutting edge technology in a component plant in 2000 is still 20 years ahead of current modular technology in many plants. By looking for used equipment and having technical support from a knowledgeable used equipment broker, modular could make the transition less costly and much smoother. The cost per BFT would be closer to the component manufacturer who has 2019 technology, and 2019 costs.
But even those who go with used equipment, and get help from a broker to get it installed correctly, still must feed it with information (CNC). While some older equipment is still manual set up, adding small things like a plate marking to a component saw can help eliminate waste, errors on the wall table, and lost time waiting for someone to layout the wall. After all, it was designed in engineering, so why design it again in the plant? The solution is BIM, making the design process smarter and feeding information to the plant to work smarter and faster.
It’s not just in the plant, adding BIM capabilities to each project can hold people accountable by identifying when a project is exceeding specifications and cost. By tying the BIM design process to estimating, purchasing, and receiving, each project would flow from department to department, without having communications issues that add costs, and add time to the project. Cost overruns could be easier to track down, as would inventory shortages or incorrect materials.
The solution may be this simple, or we may still be having this conversation in another 10–20 years. For modular manufacturers, using newer technology may require a fundamental change in the way they look at the bottom line. Rather than adding that dime, invest it in newer technology, in the plant and in the office. Look to expand the gap between modular and site construction by reducing your concurrent construction timeframe. While building components are giving site construction ways to improve their speed, the same technology, albeit a little older and less expensive, may be the path to regaining the modular edge. If nothing is done, the gap will continue to close.
Two used component manufacturing equipment brokers in these pages, Wasserman & Associates and Wood Truss Systems, are both experienced with taking older building component manufacturing technology and adapting it to modular manufacturing. Not only do they have many of the items modular manufacturers need, they can get it installed and provide technical and training resources to make the most out of your new-to-you equipment. And they can answer many of the questions modular manufacturers have about cost, time to install, and which types of equipment will work best in your plant. Contact information for both of these brokers is in our Advertiser Directory. Is opportunity knocking at your plant?