Engineering Perspectives: How is Construction Prefabrication Like Food Delivery?

As a proud New Yorker, I appreciate the convenience of food delivery and order out frequently. I definitely have contributed to the statistic that New Yorkers spend more on food delivery than residents of any other U.S. city, according to the website Review42.

But my experiences haven’t always been smooth sailing. I recently had a problem with an order of a Cobb salad. The experience was annoying, but it also provided a Eureka moment: I realized that my imperfect salad was a great analogy for challenge of prefabrication in design and construction.

Here’s what happened:

High angle view of a cobb salad with grilled shrimp When my seafood Cobb salad arrived, everything looked great. It was in a nice takeout bag with handles and there were several containers to separate the different components — salad greens with vegetables, croutons, and seafood. But when I went to assemble my lunch, I found that the restaurant forgot to include salad dressing!

At that point, I had few remedies for fixing my salad. I could call up the restaurant and complain, possibly getting a refund on my order at the expense of waiting to talk to a manager. It was unlikely that they’d agree to deliver just a small container of dressing. If they sent me anything, it would take time for it to be delivered. I could go into Syska Hennessy’s office kitchen and look for random salad dressing, but then my salad wouldn’t be a seafood Cobb salad!

Of course, If I had been seated at the restaurant, the remedy would have been simple. The waiter or waitress could go and grab the dressing from the kitchen and I’d only have to wait a minute. But I was a mile away from the kitchen and HUNGRY.

I won’t keep you in suspense: I know you want to know what happened with the salad. Suffice it to say I sprinkled on some spices I found in the kitchen and ate it grudgingly.

The Prefab Connection

You also probably want to know why this experience made me think about construction prefabrication. Here’s why: Errors are harder to fix when assembly is distanced from production. This is the biggest challenge with prefabrication. Whether it’s a datacenter pipe rack, an in-wall medical gas system for a hospital patient room, or a volumetric modular residential unit, once the unit is fabricated and sent to the field, it is away from the place where it was fabricated and on a schedule for installation. Everything can look great, but the tolerance for errors is very low.  If you need to do a field fix, it’ll be done at a low productivity rate and the cost for any remedy is expensive — up to and exceeding the cost of the prefabricated item.

In our current practice (in the AEC industry and in restaurants), we have all kinds of processes in place to manage workflow problems — RFIs, submittals, change orders, design bulletins. As we implement prefabrication, we have to amend or eliminate many of our workflows because prefabrication cannot tolerate errors in the same way as field-built construction. To put it more succinctly, we very likely have to eliminate RFIs to make prefabrication work. Prefabrication and offsite construction increase the risk caused by errors, but in the same vein can dramatically save costs, increase quality, and improve schedules. There’s a trade-off.   Just like the decision to dine out or order delivery.

So next time you get a screwed-up delivery or takeout order – no ketchup, missing cutlery, or no dressing for your seafood Cobb salad – think about RFIs. It’s harder to fix problems in the field when everything is made off site.

(The topic of RFI’s is near-and-dear to our hearts at Syska Hennessy.  You may find this article on Machine Learning for RFIs to be interesting.)

And for a full rundown on the pros and cons of prefabrication, please see this article by my colleague Lucy Vereenooghe.

A final piece of advice: If you like to eat seafood Cobb salads for lunch, plan ahead. Keep some extra dressing in the office.

Written By Robert Ioanna