When Chicago-based Zekelman Industries announced the launch of its Z Modular (Z Mod) facility in Chandler, Ariz. in 2019, it had a goal that few would be able to reach successfully. It would deliver steel-framed, volumetric modular building units up to 50 percent faster, without cost overruns, built to 1/16" (1.59-mm) tolerance. In a nutshell, its goal was to deliver the golden trifecta to the construction industry: fast, affordable and very, very good. It had most of the ingredients it needed to get it done.
The Chandler facility would be Z Mod’s third, so it had been down this road before. It would be producing 90 percent of the raw materials needed for construction, including the steel (Zekelman’s specialty), so timelines were mostly under its control. And it had a knowledgeable team in place. The plan was to eventually rely on automation to deliver the speed it needed. But Matt Miller, Z Mod’s Chandler Plant Manager, wanted to establish that speed even before the automation came online.
“Not only that,” said Miller, “but there were also the usual factors that are just a part of modular construction, including the need to fixture for an infinite number of size variations.” For all that, in Miller’s mind there was only one solution. Being a modular company itself, a modular fixturing solution made perfect sense to Z Mod and its high-mix, low-volume production. “I knew we needed a modular system because we build so many different assemblies with different dimensions,” said Miller. “We needed something that was flexible, so we could move the tooling around quickly and easily.” He also needed someone with experience to nail down what he knew would be a very specialized solution.
Miller reached out to Bluco Senior Application Engineer Todd Bennett, who told Miller something he was hoping to hear: Bluco had done this before. In fact, Bluco’s 30+ years of modular fixturing experience makes the statement “we’ve done this before” a common theme no matter what the industry. In the case of modular construction, Bluco had fixtured not only Z Mod’s Texas plant, but another modular construction facility located near Bluco headquarters in Naperville, Illinois. Miller made a visit to Bluco’s on-site Validation Center and to the modular construction facility nearby, where he was able to see similar solutions in action. “Seeing what Bluco had already done helped me visualize what was possible. From there, I started wondering how Bluco could take it to the next level,” said Miller.
Custom parts were needed to stand up the U-forms. Console blocks were a temporary solution that allowed the system to be used immediately. With a taste of what could be accomplished using modular fixturing, Miller started assembling a wish list. While he originally wanted one fixture for roof assemblies and another for floor assemblies, he challenged Bluco to take that idea and make it better. “He asked us if we could design a single fixture that would hold both assemblies at the same time,” said Bennett. Working alongside Miller and his production team, the design started to take shape.
Ultimately, the solution would be a 60' (18.29-m) long floor rail system with 13.5' (4.11-m) vertical modular U-forms. From design to installation, the solution was up and running in 45 days. Getting there required a week of on-site installation (done by the Bluco team), out-of-the-box thinking, and an eye toward solving future challenges. “We weren’t just designing for what’s happening there this week, or even this year,” said Bennett. Miller was happy with the results. “There’s nobody that does what Bluco does to the level they do it, including their service,” he said. “Todd has been great throughout the process. He’s not the typical sales guy. He’s got much more technical knowledge, and I appreciate that he comes at it from that angle."
For Miller’s part, he’s now able to do two assemblies in the time it would have taken to do one under the original plan. This puts him one step ahead of the game. “Even when the automation comes online, we’ll still be using the Bluco system,” he said. “It will just help us build that many more.” On top of that, he’s saving space. “If we had gone with a fixed positioning system, we’d be really limited in our ability to move tooling around, and it would have taken up a lot more floor space,” he added.
Another goal of this project was to leave the team at Z Mod in a position to be able to handle additional fixture designs themselves. To that end, Bluco provided training on how to manipulate the modular components in CAD. But that’s not the end of Bluco’s involvement in the project. “Even though everything worked exactly as we needed it to right from the beginning, we’re still looking at ways to make it better,” said Miller. “We’ve had multiple discussions along the lines of ‘yeah, we have it, and it’s working well, but is there an even better way to do it?’”
“That’s literally what Bluco is all about,” added Bennett. “We won’t ever stop trying to make it better for our customers.” For information on Zekelman Industries, visit www.zekelman.com or call 312-275-1600. For information on Bluco, visit www.bluco.com or call 800-535-0135
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