Autodesk Invests in AEC Startup for Prefab Management Software
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on September 18, 2017 | 5574 views

As the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry shifts to a more industrialized approach, new technology will be required to manage construction jobs less and less by phone and email and more and more through centralized software platforms. A pioneer in this space may be ManufactOn, a three-year-old startup that focuses on streamlining and managing the prefabrication (prefab) supply chain.

ManufactOn customer TG Gallagher, which utilizes ManufactOn in the fabrication shop, is discussing when an item is scheduled to be delivered to the jobsite, and checking the production status for the item. (Image courtesy of TG Gallagher.)
ManufactOn customer TG Gallagher, which utilizes ManufactOn in the fabrication shop, is discussing when an item is scheduled to be delivered to the jobsite, and checking the production status for the item. (Image courtesy of TG Gallagher.)

ManufactOn aims to play a key role in this shift, and it has just received a vote of confidence from major AEC players that suggests it will. The Boston-based startup has closed a Series A funding round led by Brick and Mortar Ventures, with participation from Autodesk, and WND Ventures. ENGINEERING.com spoke with ManufactOn CEO Raghi Iyengar and Director of Sales Brad Hartnagle, as well as Jim Lynch, vice president of Construction Product Line at Autodesk, to learn more.

The Changing World of AEC

The world of AEC is changing with many in the industry indicating a shift from on-site construction to the use of prefab elements. A recent study by the consulting and investment firm FMI Corporation indicated, “The amount of project work using prefab has almost tripled between 2010 and 2016,” and, “Contractors want to double their labor investments in prefabrication over the next five years.”

This trend is not just indicative of the desire of AEC firms to use prefab elements, but the industrialization of the AEC industry, which sees construction companies implementing IT tools like building information modeling (BIM), CAD software, and general manufacturing techniques to increase efficiency and quality, while reducing costs.

It’s in this space that ManufactOn aims to make its impact. The startup has developed a cloud-based collaborative software platform that manages prefab production materials and the construction supply chain. As an app that can be accessed from a computer, smartphone or tablet, ManufactOn serves each end point in the supply chain, from the trade contractor producing prefab components to the general contractor overseeing the construction project as a whole.

Trade contractors are able to manage prefab production, starting with early conceptual design in the studio to the manufacturing of elements in the shop. Director of Sales, Brad Hartnagle, explained, “One of the key challenges that we’re trying to address is, as more and more work is taken off-site, it’s becoming harder and harder to track all of the fabrication and the work that’s happening in the shop.” Hartnagle added, “From the trade contractor standpoint, it’s really about optimizing their own internal production and connecting those to delivery on the jobsite with the production flow through the shop.”

ManufactOn provides visibility for the general contractor to see where prefab elements and materials are in the production supply chain. (Image courtesy of ManufactOn.)
ManufactOn provides visibility for the general contractor to see where prefab elements and materials are in the production supply chain. (Image courtesy of ManufactOn.)

General contractors are able to manage the entire subcontractor network on a given project or collection of projects, coordinating different components of a project and allowing the contractor to respond with the changes that occur. “ManufactOn provides the general contractor with a collaborative, all-in-one platform that allows tracking for all of the trade network, both for prefab and raw materials, as well and any long lead items as they come onto the job site,” Hartnagle said.

Trade contractors are able to manage the production of prefab components in ManufactOn. (Image courtesy of ManufactOn.)
Trade contractors are able to manage the production of prefab components in ManufactOn. (Image courtesy of ManufactOn.)

Firms that are already using prefab elements for projects are able to get a 10 percent increase in efficiency, according to Hartnagle, while firms that are looking to increase their use of prefab are able to do so in a more efficient manner.

It’s ManufactOn’s role in the prefab supply chain and industrialized construction that makes the startup interesting to Autodesk, according to Autodesk’s Jim Lynch.  Lynch pointed out that, if the world population is really going to balloon to 10 billion people, as some estimates suggest, the construction industry is going to need to speed up, while at the same time improving quality, predictability and safety.

“If you think about the construction industry today, it’s traditionally had the reputation for low margin, extremely high risk and to be extremely fragmented. For us, industrialized construction is really about the adoption of manufacturing methods and processes to improve outcomes in the construction industry,” Lynch said. “It’s the idea of taking some of the work that’s been traditionally done on the jobsite and moving that to a factory—a more controlled, predictable and safer environment.

“ManufactOn creates an important workflow around supply chain management, making sure that building equipment, building systems—such as [mechanical, electrical, and plumbing] systems—get from initial order to the jobsite just in time.”

Connecting BIM to ManufactOn

Before founding the company, ManufactOn CEO Raghi Iyengar was hired by Lynch to work for Autodesk. Iyengar was at Autodesk for eight years, building the company’s construction portfolio, now called BIM 360.

Working with construction companies across the globe, he realized that these firms were increasingly looking toward prefab. He also realized that, if they were going to begin incorporating more manufacturing concepts, such as tracking production workflows and performing just-in-time delivery, they would need a tool like ManufactOn to do so.

Since then, Iyengar has maintained a good relationship with Autodesk, and, with the recent investment and resources from Autodesk, both companies aim to see ManufactOn’s software connect with Autodesk BIM 360.

ManufactOn will likely be able to interface with BIM 360 Docs. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
ManufactOn will likely be able to interface with BIM 360 Docs. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

In the immediate term, Lynch said that the ManufactOn platform will be integrated with BIM 360 Docs, which allows construction teams to manage blueprints, 2D plans, 3D BIM models and other project documents through a single platform. In joining the two platforms, items and orders within BIM 360 Docs will be linked to the ManufactOn system so that users can track prefab products within the supply chain.

The next step would be to connect ManufactOn to other BIM 360 tools that would make it possible to actually go through a color-coordinated model in BIM 360 and see where prefab elements are in the construction process through ManufactOn.

“The idea there is that, as the design gets developed—whether it’s in the early stages or fabrication stage—the models could be connected to ManufactOn so that you can create a prefab plan for how you want to produce it,” Iyengar said. “Then, when you’re actually managing the construction process, ManufactOn is connected to BIM 360, so you can actually understand, by walking through that color-coordinated model, where things are at in the production and delivery process.”

A model within Autodesk’s software would act as an information-rich blueprint that answered questions such as: are prefabricated elements still in design or production, have they gone through quality assurance, are they being staged somewhere, and are ready to be delivered to the jobsite? A general contractor could take a look at specific sections of the model and know how an element will be built, whether it will take one or multiple prefab contractors, whether it will be produced in a single shared factory or across multiple factories, and whether it will be made from multiple sub-assemblies.

And further down the road, Lynch said that ManufactOn could be connected to Autodesk’s broader portfolio of products, including manufacturing and factory automation tools.

“For example, we have a product called Fusion Production, which manages production on the shop floor,” Lynch said. “When you combine what ManufactOn does with Fusion Production, then all of a sudden you have a closed-loop system that takes you from the [building] system being ordered through Fusion Production, and then to ManufactOn to manage the status to carry it right through to delivery on the jobsite.”

According to Iyengar, ManufactOn already has customers that use both ManufactOn and Autodesk tools. As Autodesk supplies its resources, the startup will be able to begin working with companies to immediately implement cross-product solutions. Over time, this will evolve into new resources for the industry across the board.

For ManufactOn, the benefits of connecting its supply chain management software to BIM 360 users are obvious. For Autodesk, an investment in ManufactOn demonstrates the company’s continued interest in the construction industry, which includes, in addition to BIM 360, the investment in other startups. For instance, this July, Autodesk invested in Smartvid.io, which develops construction software that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning for safety reporting on the jobsite.

As the AEC industry becomes more industrialized, Autodesk seems to be aiming to play a key role in the process. It will be interesting to see not only how Autodesk’s seemingly disparate software products connect, but also how companies like ManufactOn fit into the picture.

To learn more about ManufactOn, visit the company website

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