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Five common challenges encountered by precast concrete contractors

Numbers 1 to 5 illustrating five challenges encountered by precast concrete contractors

Concrete is one of the most commonly used man-made materials in the world, and an absolutely essential material in construction. However, it isn’t without its problems and can be very complex to work with, particularly for projects with tight turnarounds or where intricate designs are required. Here, Craig Johnson, Business Development Manager – Detailing & Manufacturing at Trimble Solutions (UK) explores five of the most common challenges encountered by precast concrete contractors and how utilising digital technology could provide a solution.

Circular infographic. A precast number 1 with clashing rebar and arrow spiralling around it

Q: Within the precast sector, there is increasing demand from clients for a quick turnaround and prompt delivery times – put simply, time is often of the essence. How can precast manufacturers ensure that they are delivering on this need for speed, without impacting on quality?

A: The delivery times for deliverables are always lean within construction. However, the customer demand for a fast turnaround time within the precast concrete sector is increasingly becoming an obstacle for manufacturers and fabricators to navigate. This demand is driven from above, with clients, architects and contractors feeding down the line the urgency of delivery.

When time is of the essence, ensuring high levels of efficiency and accuracy is essential. Without this, precast manufacturers leave themselves open to the risks of costly rework, project delays and damaged profit margins.

Fortunately, digital technology can help. Having an integrated Building Information Modelling (BIM) workflow can expedite the design process with minimal errors or clashes, with the BIM software enabling you to visualise and review the precast components within the context of the highly detailed 3D environment. In addition to greater visualisation and automatic clash detection, data can be sent directly from the model to the concrete fabrication machinery in an instant, reducing the timescale of each stage of the process, minimising the likelihood of human error and ultimately enabling faster turnaround times from the initial order through to delivery.

Circular infographic. A precast number 2 with silhouette of people passing data slowly down to the manufacturing process

Q: Perhaps one of the reasons behind the increased demand for quick turnaround times is the delayed information transfer from the top to the bottom of the supply chain. How can this be improved?

A: The challenge of ensuring an effective transfer of information throughout the supply chain, from the client and architect through to the manufacturer and fabricator, is nothing new for the construction industry. Sadly, the process of project data being slowly drip-fed down to the manufacturing process can have a knock-on effect with delivery times.  While precast contractors can send out RFIs, it may be weeks before the required information is received. 

Here, having a streamlined and effective flow of communication throughout the supply chain is key. While there are collaboration tools and cloud-based platforms available (such as Trimble Connect), that can assist with the practical issue of how to communicate the data, it perhaps all goes back to the Digital Plan of Works (DPoW). Both understanding and providing the level of information required at the right time can be essential in speeding up the process and alleviating the time pressure on precast manufacturers.

Circular infographic. A precast number 3 with a pile of gold coins in foreground

Q: When it comes to ensuring profitability, the initial estimation and procurement stages are perhaps the most critical. But how can precast manufacturers ensure that they are creating correct initial quotations, with costs covered and profits made? 

A: From a business perspective, the success of a project is in many ways determined by the initial tender and bidding stage. If an accurate tender isn’t submitted initially, this could result in the contractor losing the bid or even potentially failing to turn a profit further down the line, in a market where margins are growing ever tighter.

To support more accurate estimations, digital technology such as BIM software offers the benefit of a central source of information. Using connected and integrated data, you can utilise the 3D model to automatically generate quantity take-offs that you can be sure is accurate. Due to this increased level of automation, precast manufacturers can benefit from more informed estimates that ensure the protection of the all-important profit margin.

Circular infographic. A precast number 4 being lifted by crane

Q: As well as avoiding structural clashes and minimising errors, it’s also important to use the design phase to plan ahead and consider the on-site installation. How can precast contractors utilise digital technology to ensure an efficient install and assembly process?

A: A common misconception around precast concrete is its reputation for being excessive in weight, which in turn could lead to complications regarding crane use and installation. These types of issues can exacerbate the process on site, with the installation taking more time than initially allocated. A convoluted install process also goes against the very ideals and benefits of offsite construction, promoted for its speed and efficiency. 

However, these issues can all be avoided. The use of 3-D modelling software doesn’t stop with the design stage of the process, and there are some key features to be capitalised on in these latter planning stages. For example, BIM technology can be used to plan out the assembly process, the installation sequences and crane layouts. Some tools, such as the “Crane Tool” available in Tekla Structures can even enable detailers to design the precast components to suit the specific crane capabilities on site. 

Effective communication and collaboration is another way that contractors can ensure an efficient installation process on site. Collaboration tools can facilitate a higher level of understanding and communication between precaster, engineers, architects and contractors, as well as providing the client with a full visualisation of the proposed system. This level of forward planning can significantly reduce the installation time on site, contributing toward quicker overall project completions.

Circular infographic. A precast number 5 with MEP services passing through

Q: Being a part of the Offsite Construction narrative, another obstacle for precast contractors to navigate is multi-material buildings and coordinating with multiple disciplines on any one project. How can the precast sector better consider other design elements (such as steel beams and MEP services) within the detailing process?

A: Collaboration is key when it comes to the planning, designing and construction of multi-material buildings. The benefit of being able to share models and data with key parties on the project cannot be understated; not just limited to the concrete contractor but everyone, from the external cladding contractor to the MEP contractor having a hand in the overall construction. 

Having a multi-material software that not only enables all materials to be brought into the digital environment but also recognises how precast concrete works around the steel elements and MEP services is critical. Trimble’s Tekla Structures is one example of a structural modelling software that allows collaboration over various materials within the single model environment. As well as enabling a more coordinated and streamlined modelling process, rather than teams having to review and work on individual aspects of the structure in separate programmes, this single model approach can also help to reduce the likelihood of error. 

Learn more about Tekla Structures, the complete constructible BIM software suite designed for the new age of improved productivity, profitability and accuracy