What We Can Do Now

Mark L. Johnson / May 2022

Besides writing articles and columns for AWCI, I also write and edit articles posted on BuildSteel.org, a website about all things cold-formed steel. I feel it’s good to talk about CFS framing because the entire wall and ceiling industry benefits.
    
Being united as an industry was the subject of conversation I had recently with an AWCI member contractor who also runs a prefabrication business. He feels the time has come for our industry to take center stage. It’s time to show everybody just what we can do.    

Get Them into My Factory
It turns out that BuildSteel has a lot of readers who want basic information about CFS framing. Many are clicking on what we call “CFS 101” articles. That doesn’t surprise my source. Basic industry education is needed.
    
“As somebody in a prefab business, my main goal is to advance prefab,” he says. “But I’m also trying to get prefab work from other contractors, and they ask me a lot of very basic questions like, ‘What is prefab? What can you guys do?’”
    
A lot of people don’t understand construction prefabrication, let alone how cold-formed steel relates to it. “And that includes some very astute developers, architects and general contractors,” says my drywall-prefabricator contact.
    
“When I get them into our factory and show them what we can do with a metal stud, it blows people’s minds,” he says.
    
He says developers and architects don’t give much thought to metal studs.
    
“They don’t know about all the different ways you can slice and dice this building material to create lots of things,” my source says.
    
And now, BIM is allowing contractors and prefabricators to get started with their work earlier in the design process. That being the case, AWCI member firms want to know how to get started with BIM. Many want to do more with BIM than just conflict resolution between wall framing and HVAC systems. Some want to launch modeling services within their firms and offer projects true design-build capabilities.
    
“I was in this spot two or three years ago,” my source says. “I needed a modeler. I needed somebody who knows how to do BIM.”
    
I first wrote about BIM in this column 14 years ago—in 2008. Boy, has it taken some time for BIM to take the stage as a tool for the wall and ceiling industry, and not just something we talk about. It’s about time, right? Many large AWCI member contractors are pushing to do design-build projects. They want to tap into the architect and engineering models early in the design phases of projects.
    
“We need to strive as an industry toward these absolute models, because that’s what ultimately will get us to point where we can speed up our construction,” my source says. “Modeling will make us more competitive—as an industry.”

Automation Is Coming
So yes, we are at a critical time as an industry. A lot of new construction technology is being developed and holds promise for contractors and constriction prefabricators to save time and labor. But ultimately, the industry’s systems and processes must run efficiently, and that requires that AWCI member contractors get a seat at the design and engineering table of a project early on.
    
“As a prefab manufacturer, we are often chasing our tail and running back and forth between the general contractor, the engineer of record and the cold-formed steel engineer,” my source says. “There are things we could do to streamline that.”
    
I don’t like to point fingers, but I must quote what my source had to say in follow up.
    
“A lot of cold-formed steel engineers out there don’t necessarily understand what we can do in a prefab facility,” he says. “Oftentimes, it’s the software the engineering firms use—it’s limited. They were designed for something 20 years ago, and they’re not getting the updated software today that they need.”
    
But then, looking inward, may source admits that prefabrication shops need a level of automation not yet applied in offsite construction to be truly efficient.
    
“There’s been some progress in automation, but to my knowledge, there is not yet a fully automated, cold-formed steel facility out there assembling wall panels,” my source says. “It’s going to be awhile before you see that because you need special tools and some investment. I don’t think the [prefabrication] market is big enough to make that investment. But it is coming.”

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.