August 19, 2020 by Neil Smith

Neil Smith, Vice President of International Business at TAS, explores the benefits, details and logistic challenges of the modular build process for the data center industry from start to finish.

Modular construction has been around for over fifty years across many industries and has had varying levels of success. The benefits of modular construction are well documented and understood in many industries including the data center industry. However, the level of success of a modular build project will depend on how well the project is set up from the early days of conceptional planning through the project life cycle. If you are to adapt the modular approach for your project, the more than 20 years of experience in many facets of modularization have always taught TAS that early project involvement in the planning, specifications and roles and responsibilities are crucial. Here are five major areas that need to be considered from conception to help facilitate that success:

Involve the Modular Expert Early in Project Conception
Most traditional build projects will involve the owner or owner’s engineer and an EPC contractor, and the stick build method is well understood by all parties. Modular build requires a slightly different mindset in the early project thinking. Involve the module manufacturers in the early planning and design with modular delivery in mind. This requires an experienced team of engineers to guide the overall engineer of record’s design team to think from a modular approach from the start. Many owner’s or owner’s engineer who are not as experienced with modular projects generally start with specifications that were developed for a stick build construction. These specifications are typically not optimized for modular design and manufacturing typically adding cost and time to the project. Early expert involvement helps optimize the specifications and potential scope for modularization that may not have previously been considered.

Having a well thought out plan for integrating the modular design model and data attributes with the physical site design model and controlling changes is critical to success.

Define Roles and Responsibilities in Detail From the Start
Scope definition for all parties involved in the project is key to avoid scope duplications or misses as the project planning matures and costs and schedules are locked in. An open discussion on roles and responsibilities should also include execution risks and how best to align risks with the parties that are in a position to mitigate them. The early involvement of the modular teams will help align the project team thinking to match the modular mindset to ensure scope and sequencing of the onsite construction is defined in a manner that fits the modular approach in the most economical and efficient way. The discussion also needs to carefully consider start-up and commissioning as well. A SDM (Scope Demarcation Matrix) broken down into the different phases of the project and capturing every action or need of the project identifying the party responsible is critical to help understand the scope splits between parties involved.

Modular Design Integration and Interfaces
Modular manufacturing can begin before the site permits are received or the physical site is ready but this requires a plan associated with design integration and interfaces of the modular assemblies with the physical site infrastructure. The best outcome occurs when critical elements including foundation, physical access, utilities etc. and any other critical interfaces are defined and frozen early in the modular design phase to minimize costly changes down the road. The modular build is performed offsite in a factory and as such the production of the modules for any given project are based upon this early design information and built into the planning of the module suppliers total manufacturing plan. Once manufacturing commences on the module, revisions to the design build can be accomplished but can potentially cause delays and cost growth in the manufacturing build cycle thereby delaying all of the products flowing through the factory and cause a detrimental ripple effect through the manufacturers facilities for all projects current in the plan. Having a well thought out plan for integrating the modular design model and data attributes with the physical site design model and controlling changes is critical to success. Well defined design gates and an effective change management and communication process before start of build is also critical to success.

Ensure all Logistical Challenges are Understood Before Design Freeze
The project location is usually determined before any project team is put together to deliver on the owner’s plans. The challenges around that predetermined location must be understood in the project’s early planning so that the modular design can be delivered and installed as designed. The maximum size and weights of the modules must be locked in early so that the modular split of skids can be understood from the project start. Limits such as road weight limits, transport routing restrictions, lift capabilities at the site and if projects are international further restrictions for importation duties or the like must be understood before project design costs and schedules are locked in. In addition, the sequencing of construction must be well thought through so that modules can be available to accommodate acceleration or delays associated with the onsite construction schedule.

Teamwork and Project Mindset
It goes without saying that the success of any project will be strongly influenced by how well the project teams work together. It is important to partner with contractors that are fully committed to the modular approach and the mindset of all team members involved is firmly behind that approach and supports it going forward. The traditional mindset of large engineering houses and EPC contractors is to maximize their scope and flow as much risk to subcontractors as possible. To obtain the maximum benefit of a modular build, typical contracting and flow down processes must be revised to reflect the partnership approach required. In addition, the typical EPC contractor scope is shifted to the modular provider. The project team members must be fully committed to this approach.

While the points above are not foreign to any build, traditional or modular, the recognition and understanding of the modular aspects in a modular build are essential. Due to the rapid deployment of a modular build, the points mentioned above are critical to ensure successful execution. TAS has delivered over 20,000 modular cooling units, data center infrastructure, electrical skids, and edge modules for a variety of markets such as data center, government, higher education, healthcare, oil and gas, turbine inlet chilling, gaming and much more over the last 20 years. TAS has successfully worked with owners, EPC’s, and Engineers of Record who have implemented these lessons learned and are reaping the maximum benefits of the modular build process. With the reduced availability of skilled onsite construction labor, more frequent technology changes, as well as the desire to incrementally build out infrastructure in a just in time fashion, modular offsite construction clearly has a bright future.

Neil Smith is Vice President of International Business at TAS.