Three construction companies have left their marks on Business Review Weekly’s (BRW) list of Australia’s 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2014.
Hickory Group and Laing O’Rourke Australia both made top ten, the former coming in at number five and the latter three spots down at number eight. Aconex Limited was listed at number 43.
Construction typically isn’t heralded as the forefront of innovation, but these companies prove that it is not impossible, especially if they rethink what construction means and how it should work. For Hickory Group, Laing O’Rourke and Aconex, this looks like a shift from traditional methods towards new processes that are already employed by the manufacturing sector, including making use of data-heavy technology and modular construction.
This is certainly true for Hickory Group, which has found its success in prefabricated construction – a method widely accepted by the industry as a faster and cheaper way to build with no compromise on quality, and which minimises on-site trades and labour requirements.
To date, Hickory Group has made waves for constructing a nine storey apartment in Melbourne in just five days , but understands that prefab needs to be driven at larger-scale, high-rise towers for its benefits to be maximised.
Its new Integrated Structural System (ISS) technology is designed to do just that. Also known as ‘The Hickory System’, ISS is said to accelerate on-site and off-site construction programs by up to 60 per cent by incorporating a unique connector and integrated column design within the modular unit.
“When the modules are connected, the technology connects to form a continuous column that delivers strength and structural integrity during high winds and lateral shock, and enables a greater number of units to be stacked on top of the other,” BRW explained.
The Hickory System is suitable for a range of high-rise projects, including apartments, hotels, hospitals and healthcare centres, as well as student accommodation. Unlike other modular technology, ISS allows buildings to be constructed to any height or layout, with the company even noting that the system has been specified on buildings over 70 stories high .
The use of standardised materials and components, which can be warehoused for use on subsequent projects, also makes ISS a more sustainable method of construction. Ninety per cent less construction waste is produced with the Hickory System, while tens of thousands of tonnes of off-cuts are saved from being sent to landfill.
Another innovation getting quite a lot of airtime in the industry is 3D printing, a digital manufacturing technology that could bring a lot of benefits to building and construction. 3D printers use a variety of methods and technology to assemble physical versions of digital objects.
Laing O’Rourke has taken this technology to combat the issue of repetitive concrete facades and building elements in Australia – a pattern that came about because most concrete moulding techniques currently available are very costly, with moulds needing to be reused multiple times for them to be economically viable.
FreeFABª Wax from Laing O’Rourke is a 3D printed concrete formwork technology that overcomes this problem. The technique uses customised wax as a formwork material to produce bespoke precast concrete and reinforced concrete moulds. This wax is low melt, machinable, low slump and shrinkage, and reusable.
The technology recycles all its materials, and the moulds are cheap and fast to produce: a simple mould can be produced in a minute, at four per cent the cost of a timber mould and with less labour requirements.
“The FreeFABª Wax technique creates a step change in precast moulding technology, enabling one-off moulds to be competitive, and allowing greater expression in both form and function,” BRW said.
“This allows design to be based on the structurally optimal arrangement of material for the element, rather than having to focus on the most labour-efficient method of creating formwork.”
BIM and 3D modelling
BIM and 3D models are nothing new for architects and designers, but a significant proportion of the project team – on-site construction managers, sub-contractors and even the client – usually do not have access to these systems.
To improve accessibility across the whole project team, Aconex has developed a functionality that will make it possible for large model sets to reside in the cloud. This allows anyone with authorised access and a web browser to gain access to the model sets easily: site managers can quickly load different models to check details whilst on site, or sub-contractors can visualise where they should install equipment or structural elements.
The project team can therefore merge and view large models without special hardware or software, regardless of where they are at. Clients can also visualise designs before and during construction instead of relying on 2D drawings and elevations.
For the building and construction industry, where inefficiencies and ineffectiveness can sometimes creep into processes, these innovations are important if companies are to stay relevant and competitive. As Hickory Group’s managing director George Argyrou tells BRW, without change costs, for instance, would remain high:
“We run it pretty hard but it is what it is. If you say the car industry did what the building industry did for the last 20 or 30 years, cars would have cost $1 million each.”
The BRW 50 Most Innovative Companies list ranks Australia’s top idea-driven firms delivering change that adds value. It recognises great innovation across all areas, including products and services, processes and communication. This year, software company Xero topped the list, followed by advertising firm M&C Saatchi and health company Planet Innovation.