Keeping Up with Chinese Productivity Through Innovative Prefabrication
"How can we compete with China?" Its the kind of easy-solution-defying question that's been inspiring insomnia in construction CEOs for years. And Murray Ellen thinks he might have just solved it.
Three or four years ago, Murray Ellen, founder of PT Blink and renowned structural engineer with 30+ years of experience innovating in steel, had a couple of steel manufacturers ask him if construction could bring jobs and business back to Australia. How could construction companies in Australia do things as well as China, and be remain competitive in terms of pricing?
This challenge sparked Murray and his team to come up with their own unique approach to design, manufacturing, and integration in the industrialized construction space.
In this Q&A, we speak with Murray about what makes PT Blink special, and how their approaches to structural building, manufacturing, and sales pitches help them save their clients up to 40 percent in project delivery schedules.
So, is PT Blink a tech company or a construction company?
We're both. We're really a "Build long-span structures efficiently and differently than you normally would" kind of company. We've actually patented a process around this — building a building without a core.
Our technology is pretty revolutionary but on a bigger scale we're not blazing completely new ground here. The industry is already moving to prefabrication, modular, industrialized construction. What we are doing is providing a technology platform and design-manufacture-integrate methods that substantially reduce project time and cost.
A lot of people offer point solutions, focusing on one little thing in design or shipping or logistics. They don't actually have the end-to-end platform. What PT Blink is doing is providing a whole different kind of tool that lets owners and builders do it all at once while keeping the integrity of the design as it passes from stakeholder to stakeholder.
What can PT Blink offer the different stakeholders in a building project?
The big benefit of what we do is saving time. We give time back to owners — a significant amount of time — 30 to 40 percent.
If you think of the time value of money, this is incredibly lucrative for owners. A project that was going to take two years can be reduced to one year and the owner starts collecting ROI on that investment earlier.
Historically, general contractors haven't thought much about time. But, we've found that the forward-thinking GC's, the ones less steeped in tradition, are capitalizing on the time savings PT Blink offers too. They can do twice as many jobs in a year - with less risk and better margins.
We're also focused on having a hardware model matching and replicating into a software model, right through the entire process. It's not quite where we are yet, but we are making moves to achieve an end-to-end platform of data capture for our customers, which can be transferred through design to facilities management, property management and asset management. It's a building in a box, with all the data facilities managers need on every nut and bolt, and all the warranties.
What makes the PT Blink model unique?
It's really two things:
First, our technology is so flexible that we can actually come in after design has already been done and offer a faster way to build.
We can approach a company and say, 'Hey, have you thought about building a different way in 40 percent less time?' Not 5 percent, which is just software doing the same old thing but faster or digitizing blueprints.
We offer a really different technology and once we have all the design data we need, we run it through the PT Blink tech, and come back to the owner and tell them exactly how we can build their project 40 percent faster.
3D structural model designed by PT Blink in Tekla.
Secondly, most of our competitors use a vertically-integrated model. It costs billions of dollars to fund manufacturing and make this model work, and although it’s a good idea to have all the components under your control, it's a challenge to have manufacturing facilities geographically dispersed. It's a very capital intensive model.
We approach it slightly differently. We deliver time and cost savings through our methodology, but we work horizontally with an ecosystem of approved manufacturers. Contractors can develop an ecosystem of their own which is very flexible and very portable.
PT Blink is the antidote to vertical-integration construction. Our technology pulls together all the manufacturers on one platform, and it's the property owner or developer that sees the benefit.
How does the PT Blink technology integrate into the design workflow?
What PT Blink is doing is actually very precise design work. If you think of the backbone, the steel structure of the building, there are four main components that we build to:
- Composite steel columns
- Trays, which make up the floor plate, which is where a lot of our IP comes into — utilizing the post tension steel to avoid having to use any propping, which makes for a very fast install onsite and a much safer area once the floor plates are up.
- Blades for stability
- Header beams and cross beams
All of these elements are instantly customizable, and repeatable. Using parametric algorithms and automating parametric rules between the structure and fixed architectural constraints, saves a lot of the back and forth time.
With a traditional processes, you're sitting in a design meeting, you talk about all the things that you're going to do, and then in the next week's meeting, you talk about the same things that people just haven't gotten around to because model coordination and clash detection is so manual and time-consuming.
Through all of these algorithms, we're creating a kit of parts that we can overlay onto a design and show someone that if they alter the design here or there, you're going to get the benefits of this integration that we've already done on a previous project.
PT Blink's technology is so flexible and that we can work with virtually any commercial structure architect. It’s not like a lot of modular design which requires you to fit a certain design and put a lot of boxes on top of each other. We can design a building that has that backbone using our technology and our repeatable methodology, designing it correctly in the beginning and putting the effort into the design phase.
How does the PT Blink technology streamline the rest of the construction workflow?
Once we’ve got the design locked down, then we send it to manufacturing partners that actually build the components offsite, straight off the design. The building components are being built in controlled, safer conditions, and when then arrive onsite, they've been pre-measured beforehand so everyone understands geometrically how they are going to fit and tested to make sure the interfaces work.
The as-design measurements are actually the as-built measurements, so you have a dimensionally accurate structure on day one. You can start prefabricating manifolds, bathrooms, facades, you name it, and you don't have the risk of going out into the field and things don't fit.
Are you doing the full building or are you focused on just the structural piece?
What we call a backbone is our main focus, but what we’ve found is if we can integrate with offsite manufacturing of pods and facades — all of that assists with what we’re trying to move towards. It is sort of like an 80 to 85 percent manufacture of an entire building.
Our goal is, through parametric and algorithms, to shorten the design process and automate the integration between parts.
Are you using local partners to do the fabrication? Are there special things you look for in those local partners?
We are looking for culture and attitude first, and then looking for capabilities and technology second. From a backbone manufacturer perspective, our philosophy is to automate that process as much as possible. This way, manufacturers can participate in a file-to-factory process: read the Tekla model and go straight to the factory floor to manufacture the components of our structure. This gives us comfort that the geometric certainty will be preserved through the manufacturing process.
One of the value propositions we take to manufacturers is that we’ll work collaboratively with them to help improve their internal processes, help make their processes more efficient, gain them a few extra points of margin, and conversely bring the cost of the product down to make them more competitive at the same time.
How does Trimble technology, and technology in general, help PT Blink scale and establish repeatable processes?
The structural steel backbone is the heart of where we begin with offsite manufacturing and so we use Tekla because it’s such a well known and well-used software in the steel industry.
Tekla has a lot of functionality — it’s very accurate in terms of geometry and it’s able to send information straight to a manufacturer. Their product machinery can essentially manufacture straight from that model.
It’s also got a lot of API capability, so it goes back to that idea of algorithmic design and parametric design by speeding up the design process and making sure we can get things done quickly.
Using things like Trimble Connect helps assist with coordinating the architectural documentation and offers a lot of helpful ways for us to track documents through the manufacturing process. Whether it’s shop drawings or models, we can link up to specific elements within the model.
Creating clash sets in Trimble Connect.
On one current project we are using the HoloLens 2 with Trimble's XR10 devices to assist with the assembly and installation processes, seeing how we can stage and review them. We've also been playing around with SiteVision to see how we can use that augmented reality aspect between Trimble Connect and our model, with the AR to represent components on site - seeing how different manufactured components integrate with our structure and that kind of thing.
A lot of those things are really beneficial for us because it’s all about getting the model done quickly, using algorithmic design, and getting it done very accurately, so we can coordinate it efficiently with other consultants. Tracking and capturing a lot of that data through the manufacturing and the build process makes it so we’re constantly improving the way we manufacture that building backbone.
For more about how PT Blink and two other firms are changing the construction industry, read Path to Prefab: Strategies for Scaling & Optimizing Prefabrication Services.