By adopting an end-to-end digital workflow system, Watkins Steel, a Queensland-based innovative mid-sized steel fabricator and installer, was able to significantly increase accuracy, reduce rework and deliver more to its clients.

A family-owned business, Watkins Steel has been delivering steel fabrication and metalwork services to south-east Queensland since 1968. Watkins Steel specialises in metalwork, small structural steel, urban artscapes and architectural structures, and employs 50 staff across steel detailing, fabricating, drafting, estimating and installation. With steady growth since its establishment, Watkins Steel is currently operating from a 3,500 sqm factory in Brisbane. The company knows that its recent investment in technology will play a huge role in their future growth.

Watkins Steel has a significant focus on refurbishments, which are not easy, clean or straightforward. These jobs generally involve two people having to be on site for three to four hours and then revisiting two or three times just to get the initial site measurement correct. Often it is the case that this work needs to be done outside of normal business hours so as not to disturb operations or create hazards for customers. The process is highly inefficient and puts increased pressure on those measuring up and working on site.

Frustrated with losing margin because of guesswork and rework, Watkins Steel director Des Watkins and two other members of his management team attended a design-led innovation workshop in 2015 run by Professor Sam Bucolo from the University of Technology Sydney. The opportunity to interview people from the construction industry about their pain points, showed the team that they were really being judged on how well – and how quickly – they could react to the problems that they encounter on site.

“That’s what the construction industry is all about, overcoming problems on site,” says Des. “So we started to think, what if these problems didn’t exist in the first place? Taking out the human error was the only way we could truly solve this.”

Watkins Steel has been using Tekla Structures, a Trimble Buildings software package for structural detailing, since 2009. The company was already aware of other solutions available from Trimble, so it engaged with Trimble’s local distributor BuildingPoint Australia to find out more. At the same time, Watkins Steel began looking at robotic steel fabrication machines from Voortman that would work direct from the Tekla models.

Watkins invested in four new pieces of technology that would work with the Tekla Structures software that the company already had. These were:

  • A Trimble laser scanner and Realworks software for site measurement.
  • A Voortman V808 coping machine for automated and precise steel fabrication.
  • Trimble Robotic Total Station and Field Link software for onsite steel installation.
  • Trimble Connect for sharing models with clients in the Cloud.

Trimble’s philosophy is to take technology that has traditionally been programmed for surveyors and develop simplified, industry-specific workflows so it can be put directly in the hands of industry professionals. This has meant that, with a few days of training and getting their technology out to site, the team at Watkins Steel have been able to get to know the basics of the laser scanner and the layout solution.

Right first time, every time

The investment in technology has delivered some impressive outcomes, with close to 100% accuracy in site measurements from a laser scan taking five to eight minutes, in shop drawings carried out in Tekla, and in layouts with the Trimble layout solution. Meanwhile the Voortman V808 allows the company to perform fabrication to plus or minus 1mm over 12m. The new technology has saved Watkins Steel 500-800 man hours per month in steel fabrication.

In the recent refurbishment of an historic train station, the technology really came into its own. Traditionally this would have been an incredibly challenging project. However, with the new technology, work was carried out without disturbing the public, with no need for on-site fabrication of steel, and everything went 100% to plan.

Watkins Steel is all but weeks into their journey and the team feel they have only unlocked 10%-20% of the potential of the technology. They are using the new technology to do existing work more efficiently, so rather than having to develop a market for it, they are already using it on every single job that comes through the door. The improvements they have seen through the entire workflow have been significant.

“We’ve gone from so much rework and projects taking far longer than anticipated, to being able to guarantee parts of our workflow 100% first time,” says Des. “For me it’s all about eliminating the human error so we can deliver a better result to our clients.

“The first step is the laser scanner, which guarantees our site measurements with 100% accuracy. By adopting the latest version of Tekla Structures, we can guarantee our shop drawings and because Tekla feeds the Voortman and flatbed plasma machine, the fabrication is processed to plus or minus one millimetre over 12 metres, so you’re getting close to guaranteeing 100% accuracy on the steel. No longer are we onsite for hours and hours taking potentially inaccurate measurements and then sometimes even having to fabricate onsite. We’ve taken all of the guesswork out.”

Communicating with the client throughout the process has also become far easier. Now, when Watkins Steel responds to a Request for Information (RFI), rather than a paper plan, they will share the existing model with the Tekla plans overlaid via Trimble Connect. This means that the client can see exactly what they are going to get and any clashes are evident right from the beginning.

Tony Dickinson, Estimator and Business Development Manager, has been with the business for twenty years. He says: “Now when I go to site, instead of spending hours worrying about whether we’ve got all of the right measurements, it only takes five to eight minutes to do the scan. During that time I can be talking to the client or the site foreman, developing my relationship with them and talking about what we are doing.”

Next steps

Des is passionate about innovation and is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve the way Watkins Steel operates.

“Even though we’ve only unlocked some of the potential of the laser scanner, we are getting more and more confident with that technology,” he says. “Our next step is to really come to grips with the layout solution and begin to embed that into our processes. We are already looking at new Voortman technology to increase the capacity of our automated steel fabrication and we’ve also only recently taken on the Trimble Connect Cloud platform as well as a Trimble handheld scanner.

“When you know you’re onto a winning thing, you can’t stop there. I’m passionate about constant innovation to deliver better to our customers and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”