Framecard makes big builds into easy projects

SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR: Mark Taylor of Framecard
SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR: Mark Taylor of Framecard

Framecad is relatively unknown in New Zealand but its steel design and build system has made an impact in some diverse places overseas. Business reporter DAVE BURGESS talked to company founder Mark Taylor to find out what he's been up to and what makes him a "social entrepreneur".

Framecard launched its "factory in a can" concept in 2009. Essentially a fully-contained steel framing factory housed in 40-foot shipping containers, these mobile factories are being used around the world.

What sets them apart is the amount of intellectual property linked to the machines.

Integrating software translates building designs into complete steel frames. It then interfaces with the manufacturing machines.

Flat steel ribbon goes in one end and precision cut components come out the other, with all notches and holes done to 0.1mm precision.

The components are even numbered so construction of the frame is simply a matter of screwing part 1 to part 2 and so on - just like a giant Meccano set.

The Auckland-based company directly employs about 100 staff, has annual turnover of more than $60 million, and at least 95 per cent of its framing ends up overseas.

Mark Taylor founded what has become Framecad about 26 years ago, originally concentrating on equipment and building products.

But an emphasis on research and development, even during the recent global financial crisis, led to a metamorphosis.

"Rather than saying we are selling machines, we are promoting a design, manufacture, build system," Taylor said.

"The areas where modern methods of construction start having a big advantage over traditional methods is where you need techniques that are substantially faster, more sustainable and resilient than the old way of doing things."

Framecad has a presence in many poorer or disadvantaged areas in the world including the Middle East, Pakistan, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria.

"In many parts of the world the construction sector is very traditional. It is almost folklore, passed down from father to son - whether it's making clay tiles or stacking mud bricks. For a lot of emerging markets, that's how most construction technology, or non-technology, works. A big challenge is going to markets to make people more aware of modern ways of doing things."

Taylor said steel has big advantages over timber when it comes to shipping costs.

"Timber . . . is about six to eight times the bulk of our raw materials. A containerload of steel, and it does depends on the grade, has probably got something in the order of 25 kilometres of framing in it. That goes a long way when you start building houses."

The company has carried out a huge amount of work in the Middle East, where previously a lot of workers' accommodation consisted of transportable, timber-framed buildings.

"Within all the oil and gas sectors there is a risk of fire damage with a lot of people living in close proximity, so they figured building combustible homes on an oil/gas field probably isn't a good idea. The regulations changed and now probably about 90 per cent of the factories operating in the Middle East are using our technology."

This work led to accommodation for the allied forces in Afghanistan.

"We put five factories into Afghanistan. The majority of accommodation and service buildings that were then being built in Afghanistan, in these huge camps which were like cities, were using the Framecad system.

"We are also into markets in Iraq and Nigeria," he said.

Then there is the Maracana Stadium in Brazil - apparently Rio's second most popular tourist attraction - which is being transformed for this year's Fifa World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

"Because of those time pressures they have moved on from the traditional way, which is too slow, and into materials that give consistent quality," Taylor said. "One of the things about the automated system that we've developed, once you get the design right the downstream practice is extremely accurate.

"With our system we have intelligence and software developed to design, engineer and control the manufacturing process. What you see in a 3-D model is what you get on the job site."

Taylor said the system's simplicity is ideal for a work force of unskilled or semi-skilled labour who are not required to measure and cut timber.

"The way most of our projects are run, they tend to panelise the product in our factory, take those panels to the site, so it's now like Meccano. It is millimetre-perfect and dimensionally stable. It doesn't matter if it rains, snows, or the sun comes out."

Taylor calls himself a "social entrepreneur" and his company's corporate mission is "about trying to improve people's lives and life standards".

"We see helping communities overcome things like housing and school problems faster is a key differentiator between us and the traditional way of doing things."

The company is looking at doing a lot of work in North America around disadvantaged communities and social housing.

Out of its Auckland plant it has been servicing the requirements of Habitat for Humanity, which builds houses for communities using volunteer labour, Taylor said.

Framecad's focus on corporate responsibility has also benefited our Australian neighbours.

"In Australia we put a mobile factory plant in a jail . . . in an outlying area where there are a lot of Aborigines. When they went to jail they are teaching them how to build houses for the community."

Taylor said mobile factories are ideal when it comes to providing housing in the aftermath of a natural disaster. They did just that in both Turkey and Haiti.

"One arrived in Pakistan a week before they had a big earthquake so it was very busy."

The New Zealand Government turned down an offer of siting a mobile factory in Christchurch after the Canterbury quakes, Taylor said.

Framecad would increase its steel-framing supply to meet demand from the domestic residential building market.

"We have a manufacturing plant in Auckland delivering to the Auckland market, licensed operators in the South Island [Picton], as well with our design-build system."

The Government and Auckland City have an accord which it hopes will result in 40,000 new homes being built over the next three years. "We have enough manufacturing equipment we are making each month that could do the Auckland market requirements several times over."

While the steel framing market is still relatively small in New Zealand, Taylor said a growing awareness bodes well for his company's future in the domestic housing market.