Machinery suppliers enable change in the industry through their offers and advice. Here, four leading voices give their take on panelisation and helping customers add it to their suite.
Months ago, I rang Jason Reints of Bliss & Reels. I wanted a quick chat with him about machinery for panelisation. Over an hour later, we ended the call, with ideas for a series of stories blooming.
The seed for it all was when Reints asked of the industry in general: “If not this, then what other approach do you believe can drive increased application of automation and reduced construction time?”
He’s right that things can’t keep going the way they have been when it comes to construction. Issues with supply and labour, increasingly unpredictable weather and a market with higher requirements when it comes to thermal performance, air tightness, quality, construction times and compliance all argue that on-site building has been hitting its limits for some time.
Is panelisation the answer? Or just a useful part of a bigger picture? I talked with Reints and several other leading machinery suppliers to see where they think we’re going and how they’re helping to get us there.
Bliss & Reels/Randek
“It’s all about the walls,” says Reints. “The standard Australian build is on a concrete slab with a truss roof, so the walls are where a considerable amount of the construction time lies. And also the largest opportunity for time savings – potentially as short as a few days from slab to lock-up.”
Moving from traditional frames to wall panels shifts work that would otherwise be done on-site to the prefabricator. “A panelised wall holds much more value than a timber frame and you’re not competing as much with the F&T plant down the road for the work,” Reints says.
But the transition to panelised construction has so far been slow. Some of that is resistance to moving into a new space, but also, “it isn’t that simple. You’re not just building panels, you’re also becoming something of a builder because you need to understand much more about the project,” says Reints. “You’re working much more closely with your builder and require a much tighter integration with the design. That’s quite a difference. Instead of just caring about the frame and/or truss manufacture, now you need to care about, and know about, three interlocking areas: the design, the manufacture and the site.
“That includes things like where can a truck go? What’s the reach on the crane on the truck and therefore how big and heavy can you make the panels? There’s a lot more integration required to get into this realm.”
Reints points out there are reliable companies in the sector with experience, “but it’s still small and young in comparison to countries like Sweden who pioneered the approach and much of the technology.
“When looking at offsite construction, people often make the comparison with car manufacturing. To use this analogy, the reason cars are as cheap as they are is that they design them in exact detail, they test and refine, and then they repetitively build large quantities with very optimised manufacturing methods. The problem with construction is that if you’re going to come to the prefabricator every time with a blank sheet of paper with a whole host of new problems that he hasn’t seen, then the design hours blow out, as do the engineering hours.”
Reints emphasises that given the newness of local industry in using the approach, to most easily get the advantages of panelised construction a project “needs to be the same as an optimised build already built, perhaps with some minor modifications, or it needs to be a large enough project that there’s repetition within the project, for instance a row of townhouses. In this case, all the engineering time you put into optimising the first townhouse is divided as you build 20 of them. But if you spend all that time and build just one, you’ve inflated your design costs but you’re only able to amortise the manufacturing and construction time efficiencies over that single build.”
So the challenge is having the right type of projects. The easy part is the machinery. “Randek has been making panelisation equipment for decades,” says Reints. “In the early 1960s, the company started manufacturing butterfly tables, which allow the fabricator to make a wall panel that’s closed on both sides and may include windows, doors, insulation and services. This remains the easiest starting point for panelised construction. They have multiple uses: you can make timber frames, sheet-braced frames, open or closed wall panels and floor/roof cassettes. Even a fabricator who’s just making frames will get orders with large windows or other openings. It can make sense to produce them on a table, because a framing machine can’t do a lot of that work.
“The capital investment varies depending on the size and spec of the tables and other machinery around them. We have customers who’ve invested a modest amount and who now specialise in this style of construction. It opens up an opportunity for a much higher value of projects for a business.”
Starting with tables also gives the fabricator the ability to learn a new style of construction. “The manufacturing can be a bit more manual, it’s a bit more forgiving while mastering the approach,” says Reints. “When you’re comfortable with the approach and have confidence in the volume of work, then you can make the step to ancillary equipment and more serious automation like robotics.”
Butterfly tables allow the fabricator to produce a high-quality square wall, sheeted or clad on both sides, including the wall wrap. The approach allows for a much more precise wall element, particularly in terms of air tightness, which is why Passive House builders are keen adopters of this approach.
The next step up is machinery that integrates with the tables to improve both quality and speed. “We’ve supplied laser projection systems to a range of fabricators,” Reints says. “They make manual tasks faster and more accurate. There are also Randek’s semi-automatic bridges. The big advantage with all these entry-level systems is that your factory can still be using paper production,” says Reints. “You don’t need a full 3D CAD model of the building elements.
For manufacturers with higher production volumes there are the highly automated systems. “In recent years Randek has developed flexible robotic systems for panelised construction,” says Reints. “But to run these more advanced systems the CAD software becomes critical. You can’t use robots to make your walls without an exact 1:1 CAD model.” In Australia, cadwork and hsbcad are the most popular packages.
“The important thing for fabricators is that we have cost-effective options to help them get started and then expand into automation as their business grows,” Reints says.
“If you look back at least 10 years ago, when we first started down the path of offsite in Australia, there was huge resistance,” says Ross Campbell, managing director Homag Australia. “It was what people did overseas, but not here, and that resistance came from all levels, from the designers to the tradies.
“It’s been a long time coming, but geographically Australia is ripe for this kind of construction technology, because the population is just so dispersed. It’s been a slow growth: there have been few big champions and success stories apart from Drouin West and Offsite in WA. To change things, you need champions who can help to create a critical mass, and not just build stuff, but market and sell and get out there and convince home buyers that offsite built is not a cheap product. Its actually a better product than built onsite. Higher quality, consistent and repeatable quality.”
Campbell has seen a major change in the profile of the people approaching him to talk about Homag’s offer, which stretches from assembly tables right up to fully automated Weinmann lines such as the ones used at DWTT. “A few years ago, the kinds of people who rang up were the big companies,” he says. “Now it’s small companies – boutique builders, architects, structural engineers – and they are, I think, frustrated with the supply line and saying, ‘Well, we’re going to start doing our own thing. And we want to start in a small way.’ More and more of the inquiries we’re responding to are just for one or two assembly tables. Some of them are already doing it – the amount of prefabrication that flies under the radar is quite large – and now they’re looking to take that next step.”
Primarily, the approaches have come from builders, who’ve struggled to get quality and trades on site. “They’re saying, we’ve got to take this into a factory, where we get all the wonderful things that some automation brings: repeatability, accuracy and efficiency, and then we take it to site and stand it up.”
Panelisation’s speed of construction is one of the key motivators for these buyers as it increases the number of houses they can build. “It’s the builders who are building directly for a client who can make it work,” Campbell says.” Maybe instead of ‘builders’, we should say construction companies, as they usually have some design competence and some in-house engineering.”
It’s certainly an easier path for construction companies than for F&T firms, who need to both partner with a builder who understands the product and then make sure that builder can deliver a site finished to an acceptable standard to take the product.
“The biggest thing stopping them from panelising is the concrete slab,” says Campbell. “It needs to be spot-on so the panel can be stood up directly on it. In much of Europe, especially Germany, where they do a significant portion of prefab for homes, the slab is a little piece of engineering and you can stand anything up on it.”
Campbell describes the German method of using specialised crews employed by the panelisation company to put the panels together onsite: “It’s a trade, and I think it’s one of the only ways to ensure the continuity of the quality that’s pre-assembled in the factory is actually delivered into the house.”
Despite having had a good number of enquiries regarding panelisation, Campbell says, “I don’t think anybody has invested one brass razoo over the past two years. Everyone has been busy being locked down, then busy being unlocked down. And the demand for construction is just through the roof. So when you have that kind of situation, you don’t have time to make changes in your business.”
Enquiries, though, have focused on static tables using a crane to transfer the frame from one table to the next, butterfly tables and then, a step up, a CNC bridge over the top. “That starts automating the machining and nailing, often cutting of openings and things like that,” says Campbell.
“The thing I would emphasise is that your supplier has already been down this learning path, so we can help you navigate that path, working out your plant requirements and putting you in touch with the suppliers of software, the nailing, stapling, screwing or gluing appliances that go on to the machine… You’ve got to draw all that together. And the place you start is your destination – you’ve got to know what goes into your house.”
Campbell means that literally: the materials you want to be manufacturing with will guide choices, as will the level of automation you’re able to invest in and the size and complexity of the panels you intend to produce.
“None of these are stumbling blocks,” Campbell says, “each is just another thing to consider. If somebody says ‘I’m putting up a plant for prefabrication’, what they need to consider isn’t just buying machines and any software packages they need. It’s the site itself. It’s all the infrastructure that goes in there, forklifts and other lifting equipment, electricity supply, truck access, all that stuff. Thanks to our experiences learning with our pioneering customers, we’ve got better at helping people navigate this process over the years. We try to point them in the right direction and say, ‘Look, have you thought about this? Go and talk to these people.’”
He cites DWTT’s success in the area, which he credits to owner Peter Ward being driven and determined: “He started turning up at trade fairs 15 or 18 years ago, asking questions,” says Campbell. “Importantly, he knows how to build a house. Coming from that mindset, Peter was able to tailor the manufacturing to suit the house and, conversely, tailor the house to suit the manufacturing. That’s how you make it work.”
Vekta Advanced Automation
Ed Serrano, managing director at Vekta, isn’t 100% convinced that panelisation is the answer to the problems we have at the moment. “It has its share of issues,” he says. “You become more restricted on what you can build and what you can do. There are a lot more restrictions on the design of the building, for example. What it’s going to come down to in order to increase margins – whether it’s panelisation or otherwise – is going to be automation. We’re seeing that now, globally; a much heavier push towards automating not just the cutting, but material handling, and so forth.”
That said, it’s still definitely a contender. “I think there’s a lot of merit to panelisation; it’s something that people can dabble in, and take it as far as they want to,” Serrano says.
“You don’t need to invest too heavily. Most of it will probably be more around your processes. And if that’s a direction that people want to go in, at this point, it would create that point of difference between your site and the guy down the road. Anything that you can do to make the builder’s job easier onsite is going to make you stand out. But most of that, especially for the average plant, will come down to processes and working with suppliers to get as much cutting and printing information as you can into the system to make it as easy as possible”
Vekta’s range focuses on automation options, ranging from the cutting to material handling, both before and after the saw, and stacking. “In particular, there are more autonomous ways of building frames and that’s an area that we work strongly in,” says Serrano. “While our equipment isn’t specifically for panels, we have machines we’ve adapted for customers doing panelisation, including some in the US who use our heavier duty stacking systems for their panels, because when they’re fully clad, they can be quite heavy.”
Serrano recommends businesses start by calling their machinery suppliers “You need an idea of what you’re trying to achieve, but once you have that, your suppliers have the experience to guide and advise,” he says.
“Some people want to come into this system at the top, but for that high-end equipment, you need to spend millions of dollars with a specialist like Weinig and you really need a custom-built factory. But for the everyday plant wanting to add panels, I’d say look at your processes and procedures, talk to your nailplate supplier about what information you can get into your files, and talk to your saw manufacturers to see what you can and can’t do.”
Some of Serrano’s customers have needed only to optimise their Vekta Razer saw for cutting frame components for basic panels, while others – like the firm in Montreal he was visiting when we spoke – are providing a fully finished modular solution. The same two things have helped all these customers increase their levels of automation: the first is that focus on information at the level of data in the files, which comes from saw manufacturers, nailplate suppliers and so on. The second is customising your process to fit the new products being manufactured.
“Panels get heavier as you add more and you need to be thinking about stacking systems, direct delivery systems and options like that for moving panels,” Serrano says. “Your traditional processes will take you to a certain point, but then you need automation for efficiency and safety, whether that’s adding something like StakPros or a fully designed specialty system. There’s some really clever thinking out there; I have customers with their own racking, lifting and interlocking systems.”
For people considering adding panels to their offer, Serrano advises: “I would start basic. I would try and identify the most time-consuming elements that the builders are doing onsite and do those in-house, and then expand and just take it one step at a time, moving down the line.
“The good thing about panelisation is that you can successfully approach it as a series of stepping stones.”
It’s easy to focus on cutting, nailing, routing and so on, but lifting is also a big part of panelised construction, both in the plant and on site. “It’s a space we’ve been a very strong proponent of for a number of years and we think it’s going to continue to experience significant growth in the Australian market simply because there is space in Australia for it to happen,” says Chris Littlewood, Combilift’s country manager Australia.
With its home in Ireland, Combilift has spent much of its 20+ year history working with European customers who are working in a mature panelised and modular market. “Efficient materials handling solutions is a core part of their process and the central tenet of our business,” says Littlewood.
“There are three parts. First is the safety aspect: our multidirectional carriers mean you’re not carrying loads at height and they also remove a lot of working at height. Second is the ease; the same unit can unload packs of timber, LVL or boards at one end of the process and load panels (or frames or trusses) at the other. Finally, our units require a smaller footprint, which increases the plant space remaining for production or storage.”
Specialising in long loads, multidirectional carriers like the Combilift C-Series are the sector’s workhorses and range from 2T to 30T. At the other end of the sector, straddle carriers and mobile gantries are built for indoor/outdoor use and can be designed specifically to handle pretty much any segment of a modular building.
“We’ve delivered anything from a one-and-a-half tonne multidirectional pedestrian unit for a firm making small panels, which aren’t particularly heavy, right up to huge machines for the modular housing space,” Littlewood says. “Because these big units aren’t restricted to the indoors, you can load your trucks outdoors and massively increase the usable space within your entire facility.
“The largest unit we’ve ever manufactured for the modular space went into the build of the Grafton Correctional Facility in NSW: a 90-tonne-capacity unit for pre-cast concrete modular prison cells with steel plate and all the amenities already built in. It was quite a boggy site and we had to design the machine to be specific to the ground conditions and not just the modules that we were lifting.”
The final word
To finish, two points from Reints. The first is that panelised product is only worthwhile if it can deliver a competitive alternative to what can be achieved on site. “That means better quality and better productivity,” he says. “It’s very hard for you to achieve either, let alone both, without investment in machinery.”
The second is that the key to moving more construction offsite may rest with the homeowner, who is currently offered practically no choice when it comes to how their frame is constructed. “The benefits of the method are very clear to everyone else in the chain,” says Reints. “The prefabricator has more value and more profit potential; instead of selling each job for $10,000, it can be $40,000 or $50,000. The builder can do the job much more rapidly and potentially reduce its complexity by moving a lot of the trades into a single relationship. It’s possible to get the whole build time down to around four to six weeks if everything is coordinated. That’s great for their turnover and moving onto the next job.”
The problem is that the approach is insulated from the consumer. Specialty operations aside, builders aren’t offering panelisation as an optional extra the buyer can pay for if they want their house more quickly.
“At the moment, the person paying for the slow build is the poor homeowner,” Reints says. “As long as the builder is cashflow positive, he’s not under pressure to build faster. The owner doesn’t know they have options, the prefabrication industry is whittled down to one line in the back of a builder’s brochure: ‘Australian-made timber frame’.
“If more homeowners knew there was a method to slash their build time by half to three-quarters, they would happily pay, say $10,000 extra for it, because they would immediately save that money elsewhere, be that in rent – that’s three months in Sydney – bridging loans, whatever. It’s a very attractive proposition for the first company to take it to market and should lead to some FOMO from other builders and construction companies, worried they’re being left behind and will need to suddenly move.”
Image: Butterfly tables (these by Weinmann) are basic tools for moving into panelisation.