In late Fall 2021, I attended “Advancing Data Center Construction,” a conference in Dallas for professionals in the data center construction industry. My U.S. Engineering Construction colleague Ryan Frazier and I co-presented “Harnessing BIM to Optimize Collaboration & Coordination for Prefabricated Data Centers,” exploring how to get the most out of the BIM process and how our work-packing system makes projects more successful.
Between 120 and 150 owners, engineers, general contractors, subcontractors and vendors gathered at the three-day conference to discuss all things data center construction: modularization, innovations driving offsite production, supply chain, sustainability and more. On the last day, sessions focused on making tangible industry improvements, like optimizing collaboration, exceeding client expectations and quality excellence.
The conference was challenging and informative. Here are some key takeaways.
Offsite manufacturing, or prefabrication, was certainly the biggest highlight of the conference. There are many forces at work to drive more production offsite, including compressed construction schedules, safety, efficiency gains, challenges with the supply chain, cost and lead time increases. These industry pressures not only drive increasing amounts of production to offsite manufacturing facilities, but they are driving significant innovation, including work-packing and modularization of various levels and complexity.
The biggest cost control measures and reductions will come to the data center construction industry through improvements in offsite manufacturing and modularization. On the flip side, there was some discussion around the perceived negative aspects of moving toward increased offsite manufacturing. For example, some felt that moving field construction offsite to fabrication shops, such that the remaining work onsite consisted of simply connecting modular skids together, diminishes the craft and stifles creativity in the trades.
It’s certainly no secret that, in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chains have been stressed to the point of breaking, resulting in significant lead time extensions and nearly out-of-control cost increases across the board. Conference sessions discussed the various ways companies such as Microsoft and M.C. Dean are working to mitigate these challenges. Solutions include optimizing just-in-time deliveries, maintaining an inventory of high-use materials and components, diversification of suppliers and early procurement to manage volatility. Nobody felt like they had solved the issues, and most agreed that it will be an ongoing challenge well into 2022 and beyond.
Sustainability and efficiency improvements are at the top of the priority list for many who are considered pioneers in data center construction and design. Much of the discussion centered around de-carbonization and achieving carbon offsets at a reasonable cost – especially for the hyperscale data center builders. Many of these clients are looking to wind and solar to achieve these goals. Others are looking at retrofitting decommissioned data centers and other existing feasible buildings to help fill the enormous current demand gaps. Often these properties can be acquired at pennies on the dollar, and they already have medium voltage power feeds and much of the internal infrastructure required.
Even with these headwinds, the data center industry is progressing forward at break-neck speed, and the future is indeed bright for those who need fast, reliable and socially responsible data center capacity.