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Building at the Speed of Now

April 25, 2023
Manufacturers want their factories up and operating faster than ever. That’s a challenge.

I went searching for an answer today: On average, how long does it take to build a manufacturing plant from scratch?

I know the question is slightly ridiculous. The number of variables involved is massive. Still, I thought there might be some research organization that had taken a stab at answering the question—and maybe there is. I couldn’t find a solid response, though.

An easier question is: How fast does a manufacturer want its new manufacturing plant up and running? The answer is “immediately”—faster if possible. “There are three new trends in the market, and it’s speed to market, speed to market, speed to market,” says Matt Mulick of Gresham Smith, a national architecture and engineering firm. Mulick is industrial architectural department manager at the company, which has worked with many industrial entities. Gresham Smith’s manufacturing clients include several battery plants, headquarters locations and facility expansions. I spoke with Mulick while doing research for a recent article, Growing on a Greenfield.

“Everything that we’re doing revolves around getting to market and producing faster than we’ve ever done before,” Mulick says. He describes speaking to a potential client the day before our telephone conversation, and the question was a straightforward “What can you do to make this extremely aggressive timeline a reality?”

“If you look at the battery plants, if you look at any of the other plants, that is the No. 1 thing. The EV market is like the space race of the ’60s. I mean, you can’t make enough of them, and you can’t build them fast enough,” he says.

My conversations with several manufacturers reflect the need for speed. Indeed, Wisconsin-based Excellerate’s business model is built on that very premise. The manufacturer describes itself as having “industrialized” construction work by taking that which would have been constructed onsite into a factory, where it can be put together more quickly in controlled conditions. Like modular homes, big pieces are built in a plant and then shipped to the building site.

Excellerate is employing the same philosophy for some components of a new plant it is constructing.

Mulick says that for many manufacturers, their desire for speed in raising a new factory is entwined with an urgent wish for maximum flexibility. The logic behind the twin desires is solid, although the challenge sounds great. Even as construction gets underway, manufacturers likely have been refining production processes or discovering better technologies and now want those improvements incorporated into a structure that is well beyond the discussion stage. Ralph Robinett, senior vice pres- ident at GAF Energy, nods in agreement when I raise the dual desires with him. His company is building a manufacturing plant in Georgetown, Texas.

“We’re designing the building as we’re designing the line as we’re designing the process. Everyone’s got to work in parallel and then you just have to have that tight alignment and the ability to make adjustments,” he says.

I’m someone to whom the word “speed” has never been attached, despite the deadline-driven nature of journalism. And speed in concert with flexibility is almost beyond my ken. For Robinett, however, “I find it fun because it means that everyone else moves at the speed you were hoping for.”

I’m ready for some lightning moves by manufacturing in 2023.

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