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Inside the UAE-owned KEF Infra One Industrial Park, India

Construction Week’s sister publication, MEP Middle East, discovers how KEF Infra One Park, an off-site construction facility in India, is striving to revolutionise the industry

SPECIAL REPORTS, Sectors, Construction facility, India, KEF Infra, On-site safety, One Industrial Park

We all know that Lego pieces can be assembled and connected in many ways to construct buildings, cars, and other complicated structures. 

A very similar philosophy is applied to modular construction, which is a process in which a building is constructed off-site, using the same materials and designing to the same codes and standards as conventionally built structures, but in less than half the time.

Last month, MEP Middle East visited an off-site construction facility where building modules are developed. Since the launch of the 16ha KEF Infra One Industrial Park in India, KEF Infra has witnessed robust growth in its order book. The industrial park currently has a manufacturing capacity of more than 500,000m2 per annum.

Founder and chairman of KEF Infra and UAE-based KEF Holdings, Faizal E Kottikollon, says: “In a short [period] of three years, KEF Infra has demonstrated its ability to bring world-class proficiency in design, engineering, manufacturing, assembly, and project management, all under one roof, thereby transforming the traditional construction industry, significantly reducing costs and increasing efficiencies.”

Kottikollon says the reason modular engineering is not yet more commonplace is because people are unwilling to accept change. “People are happy to remain with what they know,” he says. “And this is why it has not really gone leaps and bounds into the market, because of a certain [lack of integration in] engineering. In conventional projects, you will have around 10 consultants: fire and safety, electrical, and air-conditioning are all done by different people.

“This is what we are eliminating. We use the Autodesk design software Revit, which allows us to do architectural, structural, and MEP [mechanical, electrical, and plumbing] designs. We then modularise it.”

Prefabricated apartments are designed to be stacked one on top of another, “like Lego”, says Kottikollon. He adds that prefabricated MEP is all about planning and collaboration – the earlier stakeholders are involved in the project, the more opportunities there will be to save space and time during construction.

Prefabricating philanthropy

Kottikollon says KEF Infra came to fruition as a result of his interest in philanthropy. His journey began in 1995 with the opening of Al Ahamadi General Trading in Ajman, following which the business launched a valve trading company. He then created Emirates Techno Casting, which is an integrated facility incorporating engineering and design labs.

After selling his valve manufacturing business to Tyco International for $400m in 2012, Kottikollon’s passion for philanthropy led him to India. “My philanthropy work started in Calicut, India, for government schools,” he says. “We worked on a study with Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calicut, to understand the challenges faced in the public education system. We assumed that some of the issues might be teachers not being up to the mark, lack of motivation among students, and so on.

“However, the study revealed that run-down infrastructure in government schools, such as lack of toilets and dilapidated buildings, was the root cause. I wondered why no-one was addressing the issue. That’s when off-site manufacturing came to mind. Back then, we rebuilt an entire school in 95 days.”

Kottikollon says that KEF Infra has constructed about 68 government schools in India.

All automated

At KEF Infra One Park, automation and data exchange are integrated with manufacturing technologies, where a network of smart factories are driven by “human enterprise and cyber-physical systems”. Technology creates products that are durable and sustainable, which drives speed, efficiency, and precision.

Kottikollon adds: “This technology, provides a much longer life for the building because it is produced with steam curing, and on the site there is water curing. The strength of prefabricated concrete is much greater than conventional concrete. Also, it is [designed] using building information modelling (BIM). That means with every element going into the building, we know the life of that particular product in the system. So, maintenance becomes much easier. And everything is tracked today with technology.”

The maintenance cost will be nil, Kottikollon claims, adding that by using graphic concrete technology, the need to paint buildings is eliminated.

“All the steel is produced using robots. It’s all automatically done from the design stage directly; the interface is with machines. This is German technology. All welding is done using robots,” he continues.

Environmental benefits

Material waste is recognised as a major concern in the construction industry and has significant implications. The construction industry has been reported to be generating high levels of material waste. This includes building materials such as insulation, nails, electrical wiring, shingles and roofing, as well as waste originating from site preparation such as dredging materials, tree stumps, and rubble. Construction waste often contains lead, asbestos, or other hazardous substances.

With modular construction offering an affordable and efficient alternative to traditional methods, there is now a sustainable option for keeping tonnes of waste out of landfills, Kottikollon says. “There is only 2% wastage with offsite construction, as opposed to 12% wastage in the traditional method. And you are getting a better product with less maintenance; cost is less.

“The industry [that generates the most pollution] is the construction sector. There is a lot of construction debris. Yet no-one wants to change, and everyone wants to complain.

“Additionally, today’s builders have become contractors, and contractors and sub-contractors are not communicating. And because of cost over-run, everything is passed on to the client.

“In Delhi, India, homes have not been delivered, but developers have collected all the money. Modular construction eliminates corruption [...]. The construction industry is the most corrupt industry in [India]. There are too many hands involved in building something, and nothing is complete.”

Skilled labour

Will conventional construction cease to be the norm in the future? Kottikollon says this is unlikely, but he does point out that there is a lack of skilled manpower: “Previously, our carpenters and masons were very skilled. Today, the sub-contracting system has spoiled the quality. So, if today you get a mason, tomorrow that mason will go somewhere else. A new mason will replace him, but he will be unskilled. It does not really help.

“We’re bringing skilled manpower into the industry. This fits the ‘Made in India’ vision. For example, in this facility we have 1,168 employees, out of which 220 people are from villages, but they are trained to operate computers. And this is what India needs. We need to bring them and give them the skills. The intensity and the scale of growth is much higher in a factory environment.”

He adds that off-site prefabrication can reduce labour requirements. The Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) in the UK found that the use prefabricated MEP modules resulted in a 34–90% reduction in installation labour.

The Middle East

Kottikollon says KEF Infra will begin to export its modules to the Middle East. “What we are looking at is that the core plant will be here. [For] whatever we cannot export – which means the precast components – we can [partner] with precast companies in Bahrain.

“All the wood elements, furniture, and aluminium, which are cheaper to take from here [...], will be shipped. We are more of a design-and-build company. We will be [forming partnerships] in each country,” he continues.

“Many people are interested. But we are cautious [about the firms] we want to partner with. We have a mission of social entrepreneurship. The idea is to go public, so that people can be part of this journey. We are weighing a lot of options, as we speak, [...] but we have a lot of work to do in bringing this technology to the next level.”

The Asia-Pacific region dominates the modular construction market. It accounted for the largest market share in 2016, with of 46.3%. Within that region, China is one of the leading markets. Globally, North America is the second-largest region for modular construction.

Currently, the Middle East accounts for less than 4% of the global modular construction market. While there is clearly still a long way to go when it comes to increasing the acceptance of the method within this region, with mega-events such as  Expo 2020 Dubai on the horizon, and the  ensuing requirement to meet tight construction deadlines, modular engineering offers a viable way forwards.

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