The inaugural pre-fab conference is on in Melbourne this week

12 August 2014 – A new collaboration hub for pre-fabricated construction is being launched today (Tuesday) by the Manufacturing Excellence Taskforce Australia and prefabAUS at the inaugural Prefab Aus Conference in Melbourne.

According to META’s managing director, Zoran Angelkovski the hub aims to bring together manufacturers and university researchers to achieve real business outcomes that drive growth and job creation across the high value manufacturing sector.

The hub will also facilitate universities adapting research to meet industry needs and in turn assist industry to increase the rate of commercialisation of research-generated ideas, Mr Angelkovski told The Fifth Estate.

META currently has 35,000 Australian manufacturers in its database, including many small to medium enterprises that are already successfully exporting. The industry-led hub aims to create a platform where those manufacturers who are engaged with the prefab construction sector can collaborate on actual projects, and where the research generated in universities can be applied to industry problems.

The engagement model will also assist collaborators to identify areas in projects where other companies can contribute and where universities can resolve problems.

“Universities are the biggest R&D labs in the country,” Mr Angelkovski said. “Our aim to develop an engagement model, and instill a culture of collaboration that should generate projects that are global and have real business outcomes.

“META’s aim is to build business excellence across the value chain.”

Australia had an “agile, vibrant manufacturing sector”, especially in its small to medium enterprises, that could be globally competitive and create global niches for products.

“I have visited with 450 manufacturing SMEs across Australia, and the very successful companies have a leadership mind set and a willingness to challenge the status quo.”

The focus on the car industry in terms of representing the manufacturing sector as a whole was misleading, he said. And as that industry scales down Australian operations, the growing demand for prefabricated and modular construction offers opportunities for workers to transition.

Mr Angelkovski’s own 30-year background is in the automotive manufacturing sector both in Australia and overseas. He said he found when visiting Hickory’s prefabrication facility in Melbourne that people he knew from Ford and Holden were employed there, applying the same high degree of skill formerly used to build cars to the manufacture of bathroom modules and kitchens.

The Australian construction industry contributed more than $150 billion to GDP annually, of which the prefabricated housing sector contributed $4.6 billion.  The sector was expected to grow at more than 5 per cent a year, compared to the overall industry at 2.3 per cent through to 2023.

Pre-fab has a fab future

Sarah Backhouse, chief executive officer of prefabAUS, who is also an architect and University of Melbourne researcher, said there was strong potential for Australia to develop a new manufacturing base centred on 21st century construction innovation and quality.

“In Japan and across Europe, prefabricated housing is widely accepted as a quality alternative to traditional construction due to its speed of delivery, design options and energy efficient choices. This represents exciting opportunities for Australia to innovate as our prefabricated housing industry continues to grow and span not only individual houses but also medium and high density solutions while ensuring we remain globally competitive,” Ms Backhouse said.

Pre-fab protects consumers

Registrar of the NSW Architects Registration Board and former South Australian Government Architect, Timothy Horton, said the protection of consumer interests is another major benefit of prefabricated construction.

“It is a simple equation of how we do things better,” he said. “Having walked through some of these high end modular projects, when people are working in a protected environment, on the ground with better safety and infrastructure around them, it enables them to do a better job than a 17 year old in the corner of a bathroom on level 18 who has to finish the water proofing quickly so he doesn’t miss the last lift of the day.”

Mr Horton said that the focus on speed and cost on the part of builders and developers had in some cases led to quality issues, and cited UNSW research into defects and maintenance that showed construction quality could be a major issue particularly in the medium density residential sector. For example, because things do not always get adequate curing time, cracks can later develop, sometimes between strata dwellings.

Growing the market for prefab and modular was not about technical challenges, Mr Horton said. It was about promoting the consumer benefits and growing consumer confidence.

“Prefab has this ‘show me, tell me’ quality to it,” Mr Horton said.

There were also opportunities in how the supply chain for the industry was serviced, with the value chain an active area of discussion across all areas of advanced manufacturing. Especially in relation to waste.

Mr Horton, who is also on the board for the CRC for Low Carbon Living, said the industry was currently a “long way off seeing university research meaningfully embedded in solving industry problems.

“The challenge has been that all R&D is expected from individual companies. Hubs like this can increase research and increase the level of uptake of research.”

We need the software

The other aspect Mr Horton said was important was ensuring that the ability of technology and software platforms to facilitate outcomes actually delivers results which are liveable, including designs integrating natural light, ventilation, balconies which are large enough and safe enough for children to play on and the “funny corners that as human beings we appreciate”.

“What’s technically possible isn’t necessarily what we want. [Technology] could be the shortest way to the built environment none of us wants to see. It’s about moving from the doable to the desirable.”

Mr Horton suggested a key part of success for the Prefab Hub would be to invest in how it brought people together.

“The differences between successful and unsuccessful hubs is in curating the interactions”.

Mr Angelkovski said the hub will apply a systems approach, from how to deliver good and innovative design, insulation and other energy-efficiency aspects, the actual manufacture of modules and the on-site building process, the transport aspects and waste minimisation.

Once the hub is launched, joint facilitators META and prefabAus will work with an initial group of 14 manufacturers and universities to set milestones, agree on deliverables and encourage more companies who have an involvement in or relationship to the prefab sector to become involved.

“It is also about creating industries and growing the businesses. We have so much capability in this country.”

High value manufacturing sector was essential to the economy, he said.

“The hubs are not a talk-fest, they are about real business outcomes.”

The prefab hub was the fifth hub META was launching, with an advanced sports manufacturing, VCAMM Carbon Fibre, Business Excellence and Aerospace hubs already underway. A Sustainment Hub which will include such things as renewable energy technology manufacturing is to be launched in the near future.

META commenced operations in July 2013 with funding under the previous government’s Industry Innovation program. The original five-year funding commitment has, however, been cut by the current government as part of the budget measures in June. META has been thrown a lifeline until December 31 2014, and is currently looking at other government programs that may enable it to continue.

In the meantime, Mr Angelkovski said META will continue to have activities and keep building the manufacturing networks.

“Industry has so far come up with more than 80 ideas for hubs and projects, and will be launching 25 of them over the next three months. We have the skills here in Australia to tackle the global high-value manufacturing market.”