In New York this May, Brisbane-based steel fabrication company Watkins Steel was named as the inaugural recipient of the Tommy Award as part of YPO Innovation Week.

The YPO (Young Presidents Organisation) is a global peer network of chief executives and business leaders. The YPO awards recognise members of pioneering business innovations. YPO announced the winners during its inaugural YPO Innovation Week – a series of more than 50 in-person and virtual events around the world focusing on the latest trends in innovation.

Watkins Steel beat applicants from around the world to be recognised for the ability to develop “out-of-the-box” strategies to overcome common limitations in the building and construction industry. For Watkins Steel, this award was the end result of interviewing clients in the construction industry about their biggest pain points, limitations, and challenges. During the process, the senior management team learned that they were primarily judged on how they reacted to on-site construction problems.

“The building and construction industry is time-critical and unexpected challenges arise,” explains Des Watkins, Director of Watkins Steel. “More often than not, these challenges are the result of human error. After talking to clients we realised that creating and delivering innovative solutions to on-site problems would set us apart. So we started to think, what if we could eliminate these problems before they even occur? To do this, we had to completely eradicate the human error that resulted in the bulk of on-site challenges.”

Shifting towards innovation

Established in 1968 as a family-owned business specialising in metal work, Watkins Steel has grown from humble beginnings to employ over 50 staff across estimating, steel detailing, fabrication and installation. Over the course of Watkins Steel’s history, the company has expanded the range of services on offer, and now specialises in small structural steel, metal works, urban artscapes, architectural structures, and refurbishment projects.

Prior to 2014, Watkins Steel operated as a standard steel fabrication and installation company, employing traditional approaches to site measurement, steel detailing, steel processing and fabrication, and steel erection and installation. However, following the rise in steel import penetration rates and the decline in mining construction activity in 2012-13, Watkins Steel sought to adapt and innovate in order to establish a significant point of difference in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

The starting point for change came by looking at the company’s existing capabilities and resources; chiefly the inimitable skills of staff with years of experience, and the Tekla Structures Software package for steel detailing that had been used by the draftsmen since 2009. As Des says: “After years of seeking outside help from consultants, we realised that we had been ignoring our single biggest resource – our own people.”

After recognising the opportunity to build on the company’s existing resources and capabilities, Watkins Steel sought to digitally link all processes throughout the steel value chain. This represented a shift for the company from labour-based operations to technology-based processes.

The first step was researching CNC plasma cutting equipment that could create fabricated steelwork straight from Tekla software models. After working in collaboration with Voortman and investing in the Voortman V808 coping machine for steel fabrication, the benefits of shifting to technology-based processes were clear when the company saved 500-800 man hours per month in steel fabrication in the first few months.

From there, Watkins Steel began investigating 3D scanning technology that could digitally re-create 3D models of any structure or environment scanned. This resulted in the procurement of a 3D laser scanner that digitally re-creates 3D models that can be imported directly into Tekla Structures Software during the steel detailing phase. By cross-referencing shop drawings completed in Tekla Structures Software with 3D point cloud models of the scanned site, Watkins Steel can now ensure that shop drawings carried out in Tekla are 100% accurate before moving to the steel processing and fabrication phase.

Most recently, Watkins Steel has also invested in a Total Robotic Station and Field Link software for onsite steel installation. This latest piece of technology completes a four-step process, as information fed to the Robotic Station during mark-out tasks comes directly from Tekla Structures Software, allowing for 0.5mm-1.5mm accuracy of site layouts. Altogether, the benefits of this innovative four-step process are:

  • Near 100% accuracy of site measurements using 3D scanning.
  • Near 100% accuracy of shop drawings in Tekla Structures Modelling Software.
  • Approximately 500-800 man hours per month saved in steel fabrication.
  • Near 100% accuracy of on-site layout using the Total Robotic Station.

“Since we implemented the four-step process, we are no longer on site for hours taking potentially inaccurate measurements, fabricating on site when re-work is required, and making costly errors when performing site layout tasks,” says Tony Dickinson, Business Development Manager at Watkins Steel. “Instead, we’ve been able to successfully leverage client insights and existing resources to create an innovative solution that eliminates human error and significantly reduces the number of construction problems we encounter.”

Furthermore, the four-step process developed by Watkins Steel means that consistent and reliable data collected by the initial scan can be shared with architects and structural engineers to increase collaboration between all parties during the design and construction phases. As Ben Yu, Building Information Modeling (BIM) Manager at Watkins Steel, says: “The use of the scan data through our design, production, and site processes means that we have consistent information that adds real value to our clients.”

Changing business models

Since Watkins Steel embedded an end-to-end digital workflow into the steel fabrication and installation process, the company’s traditional business model has changed as a consequence of the new value adding services that can be offered to clients. While the business remains a steel fabrication and installation company at its core, the value-added benefits afforded to clients through the application of 3D scanning technology and BIM software has seen Watkins Steel take on an increased share of design and 3D laser scanning services.

In addition to steel fabrication and installation services, the company now offers clients 3D laser scanning and drafting as stand-alone services (no steel fabrication or installation is required). Recently, the company was contracted to scan the historic Albert Street Church in Brisbane CBD for a construction company that required detailed measurements of the entire building. With the laser scanner in tow, this job only took a couple of hours to create 100% accurate 3D ‘point cloud’ models of the intricate structures inside the church.

Another example of how Watkins Steel is optimising technological capabilities to create new business opportunities is via a “tender disruption process”. Traditionally, steel sub-contractors supply commercial contractors with quotes but have no real influence on which contractor is eventually awarded the tender by the end customer. Recognising an opportunity to apply 3D scanning technology and BIM software to “disrupt” this traditional tender process, Watkins Steel has begun supplying building contractors with 3D ‘point cloud’ models of scanned sites that have been imported into Tekla shop drawings to use in their tender submissions.

More recently, Watkins Steel has also been able to supply building contractors with digital 3D animations of construction processes, which enable their clients to visualise the sequential construction process and workplace health and safety considerations before construction commences.

In one instance, by utilising 3D scanning technology to create a ‘point cloud’ model of a Brisbane hospital, Watkins Steel was able to digitally recreate a 3D animation of a crane (dimensions specified by contractor) lifting steel onto the hospital’s roof. In doing so, the Watkins Steel team were able to show that the dimensions of the specified crane would clash with the existing environment, due to the fact that the diameter of the crane’s swing would be too wide for the built up area.

By presenting this data to the building contractors before construction even commenced, the contractors were able to justify the modification of their construction methodology to their clients. Consequently, the contractors won the job by demonstrating a deep understanding of the parameters of the project via the application of 3D scanning technology and BIM.

“With our four-step process, we now have the technological capabilities to create strategic partnerships with our clients and help them win projects during the highly competitive tendering process,” says Des. “By helping our clients win jobs, it helps us win more work as a consequence.”

Watkins Steel is now bucking the current trend in the Australian structural steel fabrication industry where technological product advances and production processes appear to be stagnating. The opportunity to attend the YPO Innovation Week in New York and meet with like-minded thought leaders has spurred Des Watkins to keep innovating to further improve Watkins Steel operations.

“Winning this award has motivated the entire team to keep generating new ideas that add significant value to our customers,” says Des. “We are now looking into new technology to create the fifth and sixth steps in our digital workflow.

“For us, innovation is not just a buzzword but a real business capability that we can successfully leverage to improve our customer’s satisfaction and our bottom line.”