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Workers build a modular structure inside the Advanced Building Innovation Co. plant on the outskirts of Ottawa, part of the Caivan Group of Companies.Jairus Leeson/Jairus Leeson

According to some housing affordability advocates, the solution to soaring construction costs will involve buildings pieced together from preassembled room-sized modules that are winched into place and then fitted together like building blocks.

But Ottawa home builder Frank Cairo, co-founder and CEO of the Caivan Group, has another analogy that he’s looking to bring to fruition in a new 100,000-square-foot assembly plant the firm has built outside the city: “What we’re manufacturing,” he says, “is actually set up to be installed in a way that you’d install an IKEA cabinet: simple layouts, things are well labelled and when they arrive on-site, you don’t need to have a whole bunch of experience.”

The recently opened plant, a Caivan subsidiary called Advanced Building Innovation Company (ABIC), uses about two dozen types of software, including artificial intelligence systems, as well as robotics, process optimization tools and just-in-time inventory controls to produce the components for four to six customized homes each day.

“We are harnessing algorithms and generative design technology to allow for adaptive manufacturing systems that are dynamic,” he says, explaining that the company’s software platform translates two-dimensional floor plans into site-specific three-dimensional designs, the components of which are then precision manufactured and then shipped to the job site.

The cloud-based software automatically triggers orders of raw materials, schedules trades and minimizes waste. The time savings between conventional construction and the firm’s factory-based assembly is about three months for a typical home, claims Mr. Cairo, who co-owns the business with partner Troy van Haastrecht. “That three months saving isn’t just because of what happens in the factory. It’s this wholesale approach to an autonomous ecosystem that allows that savings to occur.”

Caivan is one of a growing number of home builders that have set out to do something audacious in an industry – construction – that is notorious for its stagnant productivity levels, which have helped fuel rising housing prices.

Traditional builders have to stage waves of subcontractors, work around bad weather interruptions and manage site-related headaches, such as traffic delays.

Yet a growing number of residential or multifamily developers are looking to use off-site assembly to hasten the construction process. Suppliers of prefab components, in turn, are increasingly investing in the kind of state-of-the-art automation technologies that revolutionized manufacturing a generation ago. “They allow us to scale [and] they allow us to build quicker,” says Mr. Cairo, whose firm is looking to expand into the Greater Toronto Area. “The goal is always a faster built, more affordable, better-performing house.”

  • Inside the Advanced Building Innovation Co. plant, part of the Caivan Group of Companies.Jairus Leeson/Jairus Leeson

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Some construction technologies are well established, from “smart saws” to “building information modelling” software from tech giants such as AutoDesk, which transform conceptual drawings into highly detailed construction plans.

But as interest in the modular/prefab sector has taken off because of housing shortages, other technologies, such as cloud-based computing, AI and high-tech assembly lines, have been incorporated into efforts to yank the construction sector into the 21st century.

Brandon Searle, director of innovation at the University of New Brunswick’s Off-Site Construction Research Centre, says what he hears all the time from companies in the sector is that they want to increase their output to meet skyrocketing demand while confronting the skilled labour shortages that extend right across the industry. “They’re all looking to implement automated technologies.”

Herewith, a sampling of the technologies that are helping to transform the sector.

High-tech assembly lines

In parts of Europe, automation in the manufacturing of building components is widespread and accepted. “The Nordic countries have been doing this for years and something like 80 per cent of the homes built [there] are built in factories,” says Brandon Ionata, senior director for StrucSoft-Graitec, a Dorval, Que., construction software firm. “You really have to flip the numbers on their heads when you’re talking about Canada and North America.”

Two European firms dominate the global market for high-tech assembly lines; Weinmann, a German firm that makes equipment and software for timber construction, and Randek, a Swedish outfit that makes assembly lines that use robotics to construct floor systems, wall panels, trusses and other components. Others use 3-D printing for elements such as façades.

Mr. Searle says Edmonton modular construction firm ACQBuilt invested in Weinmann’s technology in its bid to step up productivity. “They’ve built all their digital tech around this line.”

One of the most closely watched companies in this space is TopHat, a Goldman Sachs-backed firm that builds so-called “volumetric” modules (i.e., rooms) in a plant in Derbyshire, England.

“We are seeing a lot of companies exploring alternatives,” says Mr. Ionata. “It could be that they are building machinery themselves, or they are hiring other companies with experience in robotic development to build machinery for them. But really, the easiest path right now is obviously to purchase existing machinery.”

Cloud-based software

While the design process has been software-driven for many years, with steadily expanding sophistication, one of the bottlenecks is ensuring that up-to-date and highly detailed working drawings are readily accessible to construction crews and skilled trades.

Cloud-based computing is standard in so many industries, says Mr. Ionata, but it remains a novelty in construction. “This is really where the most development is being focused right now, simply because [cloud-computing] drives clarity and better oversight.”

With specialized hand-held devices or more conventional tablets fitted out with high-speed wifi, crews working on the job site can immediately access highly detailed cloud-based project information in real-time. “All the owners of that construction project, from the actual site owners to the general contractor are all on the same page and have up-to-the-minute information about where every aspect of the project is at every stage,” he says. “That becomes a very powerful tool to help us optimize and build faster and better. But the construction industry as a whole is very slow to change. You know, it’s that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it mentality.’”

Artificial intelligence

According to Mr. Cairo, AIBC hired software engineers to develop proprietary AI-based software that aims to optimize the way materials flow into the plant and then stage the assembly to minimize bottlenecks and ensure that the components of a completed home can be shipped out in the right order at the right time. He adds that the company’s software also relies on algorithms that will minimize energy consumption and waste, both in the plant and in the home being built.

Mr. Searle, at UNB, adds that builders looking to find better ways to manage risk are trying to build what he describes as 4-D models, which track the evolution of a project throughout the construction process. “Some of these organizations are starting to look at the use of AI to automate those processes.”

Reality check

While perhaps new to the construction industry, the tech sector’s hype cycle is well known, and firms with more experience in automated modular construction have some lessons to share. Architect Daniel Ling, a principal at Montgomery Sisam, has been involved in nine modular affordable housing projects funded by the Rapid Housing Initiative. They range from three to six storeys, and include elements such as engineered timber and passive house energy-efficiency standards.

What his firm has learned is that fully modular design – basically, fitting together fully assembled rooms that are built off-site – has limitations, and is far trickier to assemble than initially assumed. With the more recent projects, Mr. Ling says, his firm is now using more prefabricated elements, such as customized wall panels constructed in a plant and then assembling them on site.

But, he adds, the whole field of premade building components continues to attract innovation and tech investment, which is encouraging, given the importance of driving some of the cost out of construction and confronting labour shortages. “I think prefabrication is going to really advance rapidly over the next few years.”

Editor’s note: The first photo caption in this article has been updated to clarify that the Advanced Building Innovation Co. plant is on the outskirts of Ottawa.

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