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OPINION: HONING THE PREFAB SKILLS OF THE FUTURE

THERE’S A LOT OF TALK ABOUT PREFABRICATED TIMBER FRAMING AND MASS TIMBER BUILDING SYSTEMS FOR PROJECTS RANGING FROM SINGLE DWELLINGS TO MULTIRESIDENTIAL, AGED CARE FACILITIES AND MORE. THE BIG QUESTION HOWEVER IS WHETHER THE SUPPLY CHAIN IS READY TO MEET THE MARKET DEMAND - AND MORE PARTICULARLY WHETHER COMPANIES HAVE THE SKILLS MANUFACTURERS REQUIRE. BUILT OFFSITE ASKED ARCHITECT AND MID-RISE ADVISORY PROGRAM MANAGER WOODSOLUTIONS, DR DAVID BYLUND FOR HIS PERSPECTIVE.

Your area of experience is designing with timber, how would you rate the current level of education of people inside and outside the industry in terms of timber pre-fab products?
DB: Inside the industry the skill levels are reasonably high, although the industry itself is very small, so high skills don’t equate to broad industry skills. Outside the timber industry, I rate the skills as very low but that is slowly changing.

What do you think the most important skills are?
DB: I think the most important skills for us to be providing through training are those of Computer Numerical Control (CNC), Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD-CAM), operators. Courses need to be set up now to be training people who will be needed to work in prefab factories. And, it’s all going to be digitally driven so, if they’re not tech savvy and familiar with the software, and the interface between the abstract notion of a drawing and the reality of making something, they are missing the point.

“Courses need to be set up now to be training people who will be needed to work in prefab factories. And, it’s all going to be digitally driven so, if they’re not tech savvy and familiar with the software, and the interface between the abstract notion of a drawing and the reality of making something, they are missing the point.”
Dr David Bylund – Program Manager, WoodSolutions.

So, it’s not as simple as taking an architect’s drawing and plugging it into a machine, and it all happens – it needs to be optimised for manufacture?
DB: Yes. Optimisation is a combination of the architects themselves optimising their own designs for the selected system, then there is the detailer, to use terminology from the frame and truss sector. But now they’re more than a detailer because, certainly in the mid-rise space it’s not simply a matter of following AS 1684, which is what a traditional detailer would do. They need to have some engineering comprehension as well.

You just mentioned the mid-rise space. How different are the skill requirements between the different construction sector segments?
DB: Roles in the low-rise sector are currently filled by people who have on the job training only. This is predominantly in low-rise residential. Workers who show promise in that space are generally taken off the workshop floor, and trained to be a detailer who operates the software that’s provided by the nail-plate operators.

When it comes to more complex buildings, there currently isn’t any easy pathway for that cohort to step-up into more complicated CNC machine operating roles.

There is a disconnection between people who are working in one area of the industry and, the people with the skills to be able to operate, in other areas. So, right now most of the new higher-skilled positions are filled by junior engineers, or engineers often from Europe.

What does Europe have that we don’t?
DB: Europe is a few years ahead of us. Many providers there have specific courses designed to train people in these areas. We don’t have that here yet.

Looking to the future, do you see a new category of worker?
DB: Yes, I do. I see a category emerging within broader prefabrication of what I’ve termed the prefabrication engineer. This is somebody who would optimise a given design solution to suit each prefabrication methodology. They will have a broad and very thorough knowledge of different prefabrication types specific to a company or a supplier, and would be able to take an architectural design and break it down into components, to be optimised for that system. A light frame solution will have one optimised method, CLT or LVL will have others.

Nano House – World Wood Day 2015, Planet Ark Make It Wood campaign, Customs House, Sydney. Structure by Analog Structures.

“I see a category emerging within broader prefabrication of what I’ve termed the prefabrication engineer. This is somebody who would optimise a given design solution to suit each prefabrication methodology. They will have a broad and very thorough knowledge of different prefabrication types specific to a company or a supplier, and would be able to take an architectural design and break it down into components, to be optimised for that system.”
Dr David Bylund – Program Manager, WoodSolutions.

If these new prefab engineers are optimising designs for a particular prefab solution, they need to get involved very early in the design process because it’s not efficient to take a design that’s been designed for something, and then try and optimise it for something else?
DB: Initially I think we will see them coming in relatively late in the process, but it won’t take people very long to realise that the sooner they bring them in, the more money they’re going to save and the better outcome they’ll get. I would expect that there would be a time of, probably even some years, as different people experiment, try different materials and prefabrication techniques relative to their own world view and thinking. And, then, as they get a little bit more interested and have more wins than losses, then they’ll start to prefabricate more and start to bring the knowledge of the efficiencies of prefabrication into the conversation much earlier.

Do you think that the lack of trained people is a major constraint on growth?
DB: Not the major constraint to growth, but an important factor.

What do you see as being a possible solution to this?
DB: I think that initially the answers are within the TAFE sector, which is working on developing new courses to meet the market need. The solutions are going to be a combination of locally developed courses specific to the types of prefabrication that are going to work within the Australian building culture. I think it would be valuable to have a study into the training providers and what they do in more established prefabricated sectors, specifically central German speaking Europe, in Scandinavia and even across to North America.■

Dr David Bylund – Program Manager, WoodSolutions

 

 

 


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