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Modularization Isn’t Going Away – In Fact, It’s Up And Coming

Modularization is having a moment, and increasingly so in the construction industry.

Modularization, or modular construction, is a process in which components of a building or other asset are constructed off-site under controlled plant conditions. They are built using the same materials and designed to the same codes and standards as conventionally built facilities, then assembled on-site to create the finished product. The process is usually faster, more efficient and more affordable than traditional construction methods.

But modularization is nothing new, especially to the nuclear, oil, and gas industries. Project Gorgon, the single biggest LNG investment in history, was constructed in part using modularization and initiated in 2009, for example. In 2014, Independent Project Analysis (IPA) estimated that 57% of oil and gas projects with budgets of more than US$15 million used a modular approach to some degree.

Modularization is a longstanding method, but its potential is beginning to blossom as the construction industry wakes up to its many benefits. As a key solution to the quick and affordable construction of both commercial and residential buildings, modularization may finally have its heyday in the construction industry for several good reasons.

Modularization: Why Now?

The nuclear, oil, and gas industries have made lofty advances through use of modularization in the last several years. Other industries, like commercial and industrial construction, are beginning to take note. But why now?

We can point to recent developments in the nuclear industry for one answer.

Several U.S.-based companies, alongside competitors in nations including Argentina, China and Russia, have been locked in a race to develop and create the first small modular reactor (SMR) to revolutionize nuclear power. They’ve relied increasingly on modularization to create these SMRs.

SMRs are nuclear reactors with a power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) per unit, or about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors. Global interest in small modular reactors has been increasing due to their ability to meet the need for flexible, zero-emission power generation across a wide range of users and applications. And because prefabricated units of SMRs are manufactured offsite in a modular fashion and then shipped and installed on-site, they’re more affordable, safer and more efficient to build than large power reactors.

In the fall of 2020, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the design of Portland, Oregon-based company NuScale Power’s SMR, making it the first of its kind to be approved stateside. It’s safe to say this increased interest in SMRs put modularization back on the map.

Modularization came into the spotlight in recent years, especially during the global pandemic Modular construction has traditionally been used for residential and commercial projects, but today it’s being viewed as a viable solution for industrial buildings as well. Many discuss why modularization is the key to success in today's markets , given its effectiveness in building more cost efficient structures in ever changing environments.

The Key Benefits of Modularization

The benefits of modular construction are vast, and construction’s growing appetite for modularization is creating a swath of new opportunities for innovation. Here are its benefits and why it’s revolutionizing the construction industry.

● Modular construction is more time and cost-efficient than traditional construction methods. Because modular designs are highly repeatable, modularization allows for the same design to be slightly edited and reimplemented for various projects. This approach cuts down on design and implementation time and costs. Furthermore, certain components of a modular structure can be outsourced to parts of the world in which labor costs are lower, only adding to the method’s cost-effectiveness.

● It has the potential to enhance workers’ quality of life. Safety always comes first on a construction site, but it’s not always guaranteed. The more variables on a job site, the higher the risk of accident or injuries. Modularization greatly decreases this risk because it minimizes the number of variable factors that play into the construction process. The modules are built on a factory floor, not on-site, enabling workers to operate in safer, controlled conditions.

What’s more, modularization can cut down commute times for workers who would otherwise have to travel to job sites and potentially stay for weeks on end until the project’s completion. This is also an enormous benefit to the quality of workers’ lives, and it has the potential to increase worker engagement and productivity levels.

● It empowers faster workflows and tighter scheduling. With modularization, schedule delays caused by inclement weather are a thing of the past. It also enables several pieces of work to be completed in parallel at different locations. Constructing every component on-site simultaneously would be impossible due to space and resource constrictions. Modularization enables workers to create different components of the same structure at the same time because they’re built in several different plants before being assembled on-site.

● Digital transformation is efficiency. With the right digital tools, moving from the design to the construction phase becomes a seamless and transparent endeavor – a far cry from the traditional document-based handoff process. Technology like HxGN SDx® makes efficiency and transparency possible, creating a digital thread running across all phases of a project to provide a comprehensive, sharable digital twin platform that enables the planning, submission, and validation of information deliverables on modular projects. Furthermore, by aligning digital data and physical assets, it’s ensured that workers understand exactly what they’re expected to do with a module once the pieces arrive at a job site.

● Modularization is the eco-friendly option. As the world becomes more aggressive in its net-zero pursuit, modularization appears frequently as a viable solution to decarbonizing the construction industry. Modularization is more sustainable than traditional construction methods because the amount of waste is initially minimized in a controlled building environment. And because the process is streamlined and controlled, construction becomes less capital intensive, minimizing the net energy required to build entirely new structures.

● Downscaling is up and coming. In the interest of sustainability and cutting costs, stakeholders are trending toward downscaling structures across multiple industries. It’s easier to justify capital spend for smaller chunks than it is for massive projects; the energy industry, for example, is taking advantage of modularization to create smaller units with an output volume similar or equal to the traditional units. For example, funding and executing a plant in multiple phases can be easier than trying to build a massive $5 billion LNG plant at one time. Modularization helps fit into this strategy.

Final Words: Modularization is the Future

The upward trajectory of modularization trends isn’t projected to dip anytime soon. Modular construction empowers more efficient project timelines, faster workflows and safer work environments, making it an obvious choice for EPCs ready to shave down on overhead costs. It delivers efficient, versatile and high-performing buildings that can be repurposed multiple times. What’s more, modularization is paving the way for a more sustainable construction industry, as it reduces waste thanks to a controlled environment.

Modularization is here to stay, and construction companies should be prepared to embrace modular construction if they’re willing to remain competitive.