Many people understand the value of using digital technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) to deliver projects within the construction industry, with their ability to foster greater collaboration, deliver improved quality and reduce waste. However, what many people fail to realise is their ability to help us unlock new methods of construction such as Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA).
The construction industry has a productivity problem. It averages around 1% productivity compared to 80% in manufacturing. At the same time, it is dealing with issues such as climate change and a desire for more sustainable buildings and infrastructure. DfMA presents a real opportunity for us to address these challenges. It provides a systematic procedure for analysing a proposed design from an assembly and manufacture point of view. It also offers us the chance to digitise the whole life cycle of a project, from design through to demolition.
In the United Kingdom, we have adopted some elements of DfMA, such as bathroom pods and wall panels that come with integrated services. Clients are also beginning to realise its benefits and are exploring how they could benefit from this approach. However, for us to realise its full potential, we have to be able to generate the volumes required to deliver the economies of scale needed to make the numbers stack up.
Sensors embedded in the components, enable us to track where each piece is in the manufacturing process so that we can be ready for them onsite, increasing site efficiency by enhancing planning and logistics.
To achieve this, we must rethink how we design and build assets. I believe we need to look no further than the automotive and aviation industries for inspiration. These sectors use a standardised and component-based approach to design, offering customers a finite set of models that are tailored to meet their needs.
In the construction sector, there is no need (in most cases) to create a unique design, every time. Instead, we could offer a series of standard “models” with a limited number of components, which could easily be customised, while also maintaining a significant degree of design creativity (as volumetric panels and modules can be crafted into any shape or form). I am confident that such an approach has the potential to deliver the results we need.
BAM’s commitment to progress includes buying a share in MHI, a DFMA company which specialises in creating components for the residential sector. It is already able to produce 30-40 modules with the same uniform characteristics e.g. wall types and ceiling finishes, which makes their product both competitive and workable.
Designed in 3D, the standard models and their associated components would have all their relevant information linked to them using BIM. These would then go into an interface similar to the digital car configurations used by buyers to choose options for their
new vehicle, making it easy for customers to swap items in and out of the model to develop the most functional design. It would also allow them to choose components based on their properties such as circular values, carbon, material choice etc. to make certain corporate goals are met.
Once the customer places their order, just as with a car or airplane, the model would go into manufacture; but rather than building it onsite, we build it offsite. Building the models offsite in a factory setting enables us to improve quality, reduce waste and helps us to tackle the growing skills shortage in the industry. It also prevents delays caused by inclement weather.
During the construction process, we are able to use tools such as laser scanning and BIM360Field to capture as-built data in real time. This enables us to update the 3D design model with actual as-built information, creating a 3D digital twin of the physical asset, which is then given to the client at handover. Having a digital twin puts an end to the need for 2D paper drawings and makes it easier for operations teams to interrogate the model to understand where fixtures and fittings are located, improving response and downtime. It also gives teams the ability to add service and maintenance data to the digital twin providing them with up to date information at their fingertips and the ability to understand better how the asset and its components are performing over its lifetime. This opportunity to collect lifetime performance data is particularly valuable, as it would give design and construction teams greater insights into how each model performs and fosters a culture of continuous improvement.
With the widespread adoption of DfMA still in its infancy in the UK, I firmly believe that the key to unlocking its potential and making it mainstream is to combine a manufacturing-led approach with digital technologies. Inevitably, this will require us to change the way we think about building design but its benefits including more sustainable and higher performance assets, would deliver positive returns for all stakeholders.
So we have the answers. We are left with a question for the industry to resolve with its customers, both public and private sector: what do we now have to do to get the buy-in needed to make this transformation happen?