When talking about digital fabrication, it’s easy to focus purely on the benefits of 3D modelling software at the detailing stage only. However, true digital fabrication can perhaps only be achieved when considering the fabrication workflow as a whole, providing digitisation, efficiencies and productivity benefits throughout – as South Durham Structures has discovered, following its incorporation of Tekla PowerFab into the business.
Based in the North East, South Durham Structures is a structural steel fabricator and installation company, delivering steelwork for everything from industrial buildings to schools, hospitals and student accommodation, and was the first UK company to start reaping the rewards from a Tekla PowerFab license. Tekla PowerFab is one example of a software that delivers on this ideal of true digital fabrication, an information management system that has been designed specifically for steel fabricators and offers a centralised hub, from which they can manage and operate their business.
Speaking about the decision to switch to Tekla PowerFab, Keith Corner, Operations Director, said:
Here at South Durham Structures, we were already familiar with Trimble and its Tekla software, although it was predominantly used only in the drawing office. So, when Trimble approached us to talk about PowerFab, it just made sense. We had already previously made the transition from a paper-based management approach to a digital system, but PowerFab has helped us to push this value even further.
While the initial rollout of Tekla PowerFab was slightly hindered by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with a large number of staff working from home, South Durham Structures is now utilising the software on a full-time basis, from estimating and purchasing through to the fabrication shop and production tracking.
Since introducing PowerFab into our workflow, the estimation stage is now a far faster and more automated process, commented Phil Nattress, Estimator.
Once we receive the IFC file from the engineer at the initial tender stage, we’re able to import this directly into PowerFab. Thanks to the software’s emphasis on data integration and automation, we’re then able to generate estimates and quantity take-offs directly from the IFC file – overall, a far easier, efficient and more accurate way of working.
Chris Martin, Contracts Manager, added:
Even just having a 3D model at the estimation stage is a huge help, compared to working solely in 2D. As well as giving you greater insight into the project and the “end goal”, it also helps to give you a real ‘feel’ for the job and a better understanding of the estimate itself.
Speaking about South Durham Structures’ use of Tekla PowerFab at the procurement stage, Keith said:
As well as using PowerFab to raise POs, we can also track stock levels with the live inventory, which is a real game changer. Easy to use and offering enhanced levels of visibility, we now no longer have to manually and physically check what stock we already have, compared to what stock we need to purchase on every job. Instead, it’s all automated, providing us with a far better and more informed way to handle stock. We can simply import files from the drawing office and the digital system will do the rest!
Having instant access to live stock information is perhaps especially valuable given the current economic climate, with material shortages and long lead times an ongoing challenge for the construction industry.
While a digital information management system, such as PowerFab, delivers value throughout the entire fabrication workflow, as already demonstrated, perhaps its biggest value comes at the fabrication stage itself.
Manufacturing to the CE mark, as we do, traceability is a crucial factor. Previously, our staff would fill in time sheets with what they had been working on, such as plating or welding, and this information would then be manually transferred to a spreadsheet for the Material Identification Traceability System (MITS) and its weekly reports.
Unsurprisingly, this was a very long-winded method, which took up a considerable amount of time. However, this has now been transformed and streamlined, thanks to the addition of digital technology on the shop floor. Through the use of smart tablets, all of our fabrication team have easy access to Tekla PowerFab and can immediately mark off a job once completed. As well as helping us to see who has done what, it also provides a live view of production and a greater understanding of the production programme, with instant visibility and traceability on where every order is up to.
As well as providing value at a business level, the use of tablets on the shop floor has also benefitted our fabrication team, providing them with easy access to the information they need, when they need it. In the case of a particularly complex connection or weld, for example, team members would often have come to the drawing office to query it or request to view the 3D drawings. Now, through Tekla PowerFab, they can instantly access and view the model and drawings on their tablet, as well as interact with it, zooming in, panning around, etc.
Everyone is connected, both to each other and to the job. Having this central information system enables a far more collaborative and coordinated way of working, right from estimation and procurement through to the drawing office and into the fab shop.
Taking this theme of connectivity and coordination further, it’s not just fabricators that stand to benefit from a digital information management system, but their customers too. At South Durham Structures, the new and enhanced level of digitisation has enabled them to offer an even greater level of customer service, as Chris explained.
One major benefit that we’ve seen is the ability to solve customer queries promptly and provide almost instant production updates. For example, we recently had a customer querying where a particular part of their order was. Using PowerFab, we were able to instantly trace the job and see that it had been completed and loaded onto the next delivery to site. With the old paper-based system, this would have been a far longer and more time-consuming process, likely resulting in us having to walk round our site and physically look for the steel.
It’s all about aiding more effective communication. Having this greater level of visibility ourselves enables us to, in turn, be more transparent to the customer, facilitating a positive customer relationship.
As well as the automation and efficiency benefits that you get from a digital workflow, especially when compared to the previous paper-based method, perhaps the real value of PowerFab is the enhanced visibility that it offers. All the information you need is available right at your finger-tips, whether on a tablet or a computer – no more having to carry around paper files. It saves time, saves paper and is ideal for better business management and I know it’s going to be key in helping us to drive the business forwards.