Precast concrete and digital technology - Facilitators of the new normal

Man on laptop detailing precast on Tekla Structures from homeAs construction sites start to re-open across the country, the industry is faced with adapting its traditional methods in line with the challenges presented by the current Coronavirus pandemic and ongoing social distancing guidelines. Here, Ismail Makda, Business Development Manager - Concrete at Trimble, explores how a combination of off-site construction and remote collaboration software tools could be the key to supporting and enabling this new, safer way of working.

It would surely come as no surprise to hear that construction is a vital contributor to both the national and global economy. With this in mind, it is imperative that the industry both learns and adapts its methods and approach in line with these new challenges – only then can it hope to survive the unpredictable future.

Through using Trimble’s design and project management tools, including Trimble Connect and Tekla Model Sharing, we have been able to switch seamlessly between working in the office and working from home.

Richard Kowalski, Technical Director at O’Reilly Concrete

People and businesses have been adjusting to this new reality and adapting their way of living ever since the World Health Organisation formally classified the Coronavirus as a global pandemic, whether that be in terms of self-isolating, home-schooling children or working remotely. For many years, the construction industry has been criticised for failing to adapt and modernise its way of working. Now, it is perhaps these very modern methods and workflows that hold the answer to construction’s survival.

Off-site construction, frequently proclaimed as being the future of the industry due to its improved efficiency and productivity, now seems to be more relevant than ever. Implemented correctly, off-site construction could be an ideal solution, enabling contractors, manufacturers and other construction companies to overcome many of the difficulties presented by our new rules of life.

Looking down on construction of precast school

One of the primary issues currently faced by the industry is how to practically minimise the number of workers and activities on site at any one time. By using off-site construction methods, where the primary structural components are fabricated and assembled away from the construction site, a significant percentage of construction activity can be moved into a controlled factory environment. This way of working will allow the government’s Covid-19 rules, recommendations and guidelines to be easily implemented, reducing both the amount of time spent on site and the number of workers required.

3D model of precast building with no roof, steel rafter and purlins are visible

Those construction sectors that have already implemented such methods in their daily activities, such as precast concrete manufacturers and fabricators, are perhaps at an advantage when it comes to surviving the industry’s new challenges.

Speaking to Richard Kowalski, Technical Director at O’Reilly Concrete, Ireland’s leading provider of precast concrete solutions, he said: Precast manufacturers and contractors, such as ourselves, seem to have been able to adapt relatively quickly, with our ordinary workflows and processes all lending themselves well to these new rules and with minimal amendment required.

For example, the majority of our precast production is concentrated within factory environments, where elements are fabricated using semi-automated production facilities, such as at our new carousel plant in Cardiff, UK or the fully-automated, hollow-core production plant in Belturbet, Ireland. This advanced production process only requires a limited number of people on-hand for its successful operation, spread across large factory facilities, enabling social distancing to be easily and safely maintained and reducing the risk of virus transmission. 

Model view of precast building from inside at ground level, steel rafter and purlins are visible

Our rebar preparation and reinforcement cage assembly processes are also automated and separated from the main casting facility, with prefabricated rebar cages, produced at our steel processing plant, arriving ready-to-use at our casting lines. While the benefits of this were previously only to improve the efficiency of our production process and the quality of the rebar cages, significant in itself, it also now contributes to the assurance of a safe working environment, with workforce teams separated from one another.

PPE is another key requirement for ensuring a safe working environment. Here, once again, precast concrete production facilities, like many other off-site construction factories, are already one-step ahead. The wearing of protective equipment, such as face shields and masks, goggles and gloves, is already commonplace within our concrete casting facilities. In fact, with the simple addition of implementing rotational use of social areas, such as canteens and changing rooms, precast production can largely continue as normal, while also ensuring the safety of our workforce.

View of precast sports hall from inside

As well as ensuring safe factory conditions for the casting and fabrication work, O’Reilly Concrete is also well prepared to cope with the new challenges encountered during the initial design process, having had BIM and digital technology firmly embedded within its processes for many years.

With many detailing and engineering teams now working from home, perhaps for the foreseeable future, adjusting to remote working and ensuring efficient communication between team members has been another challenge for many within the industry. It is here that the benefits of digital technology, another area frequently dubbed as forming part of construction’s future, are suddenly perhaps most relevant; with those who have already previously modernised their approach and incorporated digital processes within their business able to adapt more easily to this new remote way of working.

Tekla Structures precast model rendered through Visualizer, shows precast walls being supported by steel prop's

Digital technology, cloud-based software in particular, can enable continued levels of communication, coordination and collaboration between design and engineering teams, ensuring that neither their quality of work or productivity levels are compromised by this change in the work routine.

Speaking about the importance of communication, Richard commented: Through using Trimble’s design and project management tools, including Trimble Connect and Tekla Model Sharing, we have been able to switch seamlessly between working in the office and working from home. We are still able to work on projects as a team, working together to provide the most efficient design or solution, despite not having seen each other in person for many weeks.

A cloud-based platform, Trimble Connect forms a centralised hub for all Tekla software, allowing different teams and disciplines to access, share and review the BIM model and its connected drawings, documents and schedules. This enhanced visibility and maintained communication link ensure that everyone involved in a project has access to the same documentation and data, no matter where in the country they are based.

Tekla Structures precast model of school viewed from above. Main cloister with buildings to two sides

It is this theme of connectivity that also continues into Tekla Model Sharing, a BIM collaboration tool, which enables project teams to view and work on the same 3D model at the same time, without fear of their work colliding. Again, digital technology such as this is integral to enabling coordination and communication – two factors that have perhaps never been so important to our modern way of working as they are now. As the construction industry adjusts to this new normal, businesses, contractors and sites across the country are being forced to adapt and modify their traditional ways of working in order to ensure safe environments for staff to return to. It is interesting to note that the very methods and tools which have been heralded as the future of the industry, specifically off-site construction, BIM and digital technology, are suddenly more relevant than ever, providing a very real solution for the present challenges. Rather than being a tool for the future, off-site construction and digital technology are facilitating the new normal, now.

Cranes on site lifting precast wall panels into position

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