Developers willing to embrace change and work with innovative organisations will reap the full benefits of Modern Methods of Construction through Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA).

However, in order to gain the full advantage of DfMA, a paradigm shift in approach to both procurement and the design phases, will be required.

What is DfMA?

The aim of DfMA is to improve quality through the application of efficiency. In manufacturing terms, those producing a design for a product (from concept through to technical design) must consider not just the aesthetics and function of the finished product, but also how a component may be manufactured most efficiently. Through efficient design, DfMA should eliminate waste at source, enabling the use of higher quality materials at the same cost. In addition, a reduction in the time spent on site and therefore the most common sources of delay will benefit programme delivery.

Given the move towards favouring sustainable solutions wherever possible, a ‘full’ DfMA approach will also consider methods of deconstruction of the end product when the time comes. This results in not only safer demolition, but at its most refined, DfMA is capable of catering for the re-use of components, the reconfiguration of entire buildings, or even the redeployment of those buildings elsewhere.

Strictly speaking, adopting a DfMA approach should not in itself influence the physical appearance of the end product – it is instead a focus on how to achieve that result most efficiently. However, to ensure that designs are not inefficiently reverse engineered in an attempt to retrospectively conform a design to a specific manufacturing process, developer clients need to consider breaking away from their historic design team and supply chain and to work with innovative organisations that understand DfMA, some of whom will have close links to the manufacturers themselves.

Secret to Success

Critical to the success of DfMA is not only a deep knowledge of the manufacturing process, but also a fundamental understanding of both the end product and end user, including (in the construction industry) the site in question, the key drivers for success and any building constraints (e.g. maintenance requirements). The use of a 'digital twin' will push the benefits of BIM beyond its current level of effectiveness, allowing a developer to digitally model how changes to certain services would affect the performance of a building, to test out alternative configurations before going through the capital expense of a fit out, and even to assist in the development of the design intent of the next iteration of building in the developer's portfolio. On a micro level, the data generated should also inform the DfMA process for particular components, such as modular construction solutions, again allowing for future iteration of the product in question to be fine tuned.

It is crucial for there to be early involvement and collaboration from the outset, between all parties with any design responsibility including the contractor, core design team and specialist sub-contractors (in particular the manufacturers of key elements of the construction) to facilitate optimum design integration. Time spent re-working even a small element of the design could impact all disciplines and (at its worst) cause the need to re-configure a manufacturing set up.

Given the nature of DfMA, Contractors will be forced to take into account risks that are totally different from their usual risk profile (and appetite). For example, they will need to deal with the transport of components to site (including taking risk for accidents in transit), and even consider retraining employees to become assembly ‘engineers’ to put together the pre-manufactured kits once on site. As well as a new skill set, this will inevitably involve different legal arrangements and forms of contract, and may eventually lead to a new industry standard.

Considerations

DfMA should not be more expensive, but will affect the payment profile, shifting significant outlay to the early end of the project lifecycle. This is likely to mean a shift in attitudes and preferences for the approach to funding DfMA projects, with greater focus on 'whole life' cost rather than initial capital cost. For example, where a borrower is using its own equity for a portion of the development costs, funders may wish to ‘cherry pick’ the packages that equity is spent on, rather than simply expecting the borrower to pay for the first £X million.

Where developers are undertaking repeat projects such as infrastructure, education and leisure / hotels, the ability to roll out similar strategies across multiple projects and at scale will enable those developers to maximise the value of any upfront capital investment. Over time, developers will be able to build libraries of standardised digital designs / products (e.g. for full stair cores including lighting and handrails) which can be rolled out on multiple projects.

From an insurance perspective, DfMA projects provide a more favourable position for the insurers, which should result in lower premiums. Traditional risks such as health and safety are greatly reduced (i.e. by the reduction in number of labourers on site and the duration of on-site activities) and new risks can be mitigated by using the project’s digital twin to carry out 'Failure Mode and Effect Analysis' to identify, assess and address possible risks stemming from design.

The UK government, as the largest single client of the UK construction industry, has confirmed that it will be adopting 'a presumption in favour of offsite construction by 2019 across suitable capital programmes, where it represents best value for money'. Exchequer secretary to the Treasury, Robert Jenrick reiterated that 'as the pace of technological change accelerates, [the government is] stepping up [its] commitment to digital infrastructure, use of data to drive greater productivity and embrace new methods of construction'. This is an important step, but it is also now up to private sector clients and developers to follow suit, encourage innovation across the industry, and steer the required changes within the supply chain.