Supply chain needs a lot more work
AT THE beginning of last century the advent of rolled steel sections enabled engineers to adopt significant steel framing systems for multi- storey buildings. This was exemplified in New York, birthplace of the skyscraper, and typified by the developer Jacob Raskob’s Empire State Building, completed in 1931 and framed with 57,000 tonnes of riveted steel. This frame was erected in 23 weeks at the rate of a floor a day, unfortunately with the loss of 14 lives. Steel became the most widely adopted material for framing multi- story buildings and Australia was no exception to this trend.
The post- WWII era witnessed the start of a build- up in the use of concrete framing in Australia, although steel was still the most widely used material for tall buildings. While this pattern was reflected elsewhere in the world, in Australia usage fell to as low as 3 per cent and has only recently crept back to 13 per cent. This compares with usages of 70 per cent, 50 per cent and 40 per cent in the UK, US and New Zealand, respectively. The more recent introduction of both composite metal deck construction, minimising formwork and new fire engineering concepts and materials has helped steel construction stay in the race. However, it still faces stiff competition from a very efficient concrete industry, particularly in its applications of prestressing and post- tensioning technologies.
The Warren Centre ( TWC) within the University of Sydney concluded, after preliminary research, that this downward trend was not conducive to maintaining a strong steel fabricating industry, which is an essential component of Australia’s construction industry. While the building structural steel sector is only a small part of the total industry, it is a mainstay which has provided continuing support to the construction industry over the years. This is in contrast to the resources and mining sector, which while currently strong, has a volatile record. This downward trend has also resulted in a weakening of the skills base, which TWC considers to be not in the national interest.
TWC convinced steel producers and the federal Government’s Department of Industry Tourism and Trade, to support research into the causes of steel’s poor performance in this sector and to propose remedies. With this financial support, the co- operation of the Australian Steel Institute and pro bono input from some 50 experienced professionals from across the steel supply chain, the project Steel- Framing the Future ( S- FTF) was born. Now nearing completion, this TWC project demonstrates how selected teams of participants from an industry value chain can, through interactive working, identify causes and propose solutions to industry problems. Teams involved in such projects have a strong sense of ownership of the solutions proposed which enhances the likelihood of industry adopting these solutions.
The FTF project has uncovered the startling conclusions that the Australian structural steel supply chain suffers from a lack of strong leadership, poor specialist estimating skills, a non- integrated supply chain, an inability to articulate the value proposition for steel- framed buildings and a poor take- up and integration of technology, even though tried and proven in other industries and other countries. These root causes further exacerbate the value chain’s poor communication record and lack of collaboration.
The industry needs to relearn the art of working co- operatively, to make its product understood ( ie sell itself) and get with the times technologically. While productivity is improving, it is still short of its overseas counterpart levels, eg, in the UK, where output per man per annum has risen from 30 tonnes to 240 tonnes in 13 years, a 700 per cent increase, mainly due to the use of 3D documentation, IT integration and workshop automation.
Suffice it to say, during the course of the S- FTF project, signs of change have started to emerge and are expected to gather pace. This change focuses on welding the supply chain together by integrating procurement and delivery thus creating a single point of responsibility and reducing the customer’s risk. Whether this is done by integrating engineering, procurement and manufacture into a single design and construct entity by partnering, collaboration or alliancing, or some other model, is entirely the choice of the driving entity, namely the previously absent strong leader. While design and construct has been established in the industrial and resources sector for years, it has had little application to multistorey buildings. Encouragingly, there has now been a recent project completed in Sydney by Lysaght Design and Construct, with another on the way, as well as firm plans by other operators now entering the field.
Steel framing is unquestionably making a comeback with the emergence of a more entrepreneurial group of suppliers. With its attributes of prefabrication, sustainability and now integration of the supply chain, steel is poised to make great advances in framing the future buildings of Australia. Sandy Longworth is a chartered engineer with mining and heavy engineering experience, a past chairman and currently honorary governor of The Warren Centre.