Housing industry could save auto jobs

September 03, 2015

Growth in Australia’s modular building housing industry could save jobs from the auto manufacturing industry.

The manufacture of prefabricated buildings and the subsequent growth of a modular housing industry in Australia may hold the key to saving jobs from the auto industry, says Professor Peter Newman of Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute.

The closure of Ford Australia’s Broadmeadows and Geelong car manufacturing plants by October 2016 will lead to hundreds of redundancies, and bring about the loss of traditional manufacturing and engineering skills.

The Australian Manufacturers Workers Union has said that it fears more jobs would go as the impact from the plant closures affects the wider auto parts industry.

But growing the prefab housing industry could utilise these skills and processes, says Newman.

The car manufacturing process is highly automated, however skills are still required to manage these processes. “It’s in the transfer of these management and associated skills to modular building fabrication where the opportunities lie,” says Newman.

“Modular building construction has been around since the 1960s when the development of lean manufacturing techniques and skills by the Toyota car company were transferred to other industries, including the construction of buildings.”

“This formed the basis for how the Japanese economy took off. Modular buildings currently represent around about 60-70% of the market in Japan, and about 50% in Europe,” says Newman.

In 2012, the prefabrication buildings industry was worth $90 billion worldwide according to Newman, but at only 3% of the current Australian building sector, he predicts that it will grow to 10% by 2020.

Newman believes that without a transformation of the buildings industry in Australia, overseas companies could seize the opportunity, which could lead to job losses in the building sector.

“A new profession has emerged bringing together digital control systems with many different kinds of industrial processes. Given modern engineering practices and the use of computers, you definitely need engineers, but you also need people trained in computing skills. There is a cross-over with old disciplines,” says Newman.

Newman believes that because modular buildings are a disruptive technology, their uptake in Australia will be determined by demand. Given, however, that modular buildings can be erected 30–40% faster than conventional buildings — and therefore cost less — they could be a solution to current concerns over housing affordability facing many of Australia’s capital cities.

“Modular buildings also enable innovative design that makes high-density redevelopment much more popular,” says Newman.

Ausco modular, an award winning modular residential housing company based in Western Australia, designed, manufactured and installed 20 double storey, three and four bedroom homes in Moranbah, Queensland in just five months.

Significant savings in greenhouse gas emissions can also be achieved. Newman estimates that modular buildings can be up to 30–40% less carbon intensive when occupied compared with buildings constructed using traditional practices. Prefab buildings also generate 10–20% less CO­2e emissions in their construction, particularly when compared with buildings constructed from brick and cement.

To assist in the transformation of the building industry in Australia, the Universities of Melbourne, Sydney and Curtin have recently been awarded $4 million to establish the Australian Research Council Training Centre for Advanced Manufacturing of Prefabricated Housing.

The centre aims to foster collaboration between universities and industry by providing innovative training for researchers in skills that will be key to unlocking the potential growth of the modular building industry.

Carl Williams

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