DfMA – just what the built environment needs? - The BESA
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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Design for Manufactured Assembly (DfMA) – just what the built environment needs?

Rob Driscoll, BESA Director of Legal and Commercial

We live in an age where UK industry has identified, and by its own admission accepted, its inability to unlock productivity. Within each industrial revolution (except this one), wholesale economic growth and profitability has enjoyed an accelerated increase due to efficiency savings thanks to technological advancement.

BESA has been leading for some time on the issue of how ‘technology is the key enabler and driver of innovation’ in the built-environment sector. But technological advances are not all about new gadgets, tools and software; it’s also about process improvement.

The distinguishing factor of the digital industrial revolution that the built-environment sector is currently experiencing is its disruptive nature. Never before have we seen the economic structure and position of the construction industry’s largest corporate incumbents threatened in the way they currently are, but for BESA there are major opportunities, not only for construction and FM, but specifically for BESA members who are at the heart of supplying, designing, installing and maintaining the technology that drives intelligent homes, buildings and infrastructure.

In every major historical event, there have been long and short-term reasons followed by a catalyst for change - DfMA is threatening to be that catalyst for evolution and change within the construction and FM industries.

DfMA, put simply, is the utilisation of technology and data to design and manufacture in factory conditions; assets, plant, components and materials so that built-assets such as housing, commercial buildings and infrastructure can be transported  in component parts to site and subsequently simply assembled in situ. This puts production line efficiency into construction, reducing waste and risk through minimised on site use of raw materials, human time and safety requirements as well as lowering cost and carbon emissions by facilitating recycling and recirculation within the circular economy.

At the BESA, we have been getting many enquiries about DfMA from our members, affiliates and interested groups. It is becoming increasingly clear that if it were adopted throughout the industry, DfMA could deliver substantial improvements in efficiency and waste reduction.

A widespread use of DfMA could even see the industry achieve the ambitious Government Construction 2025 blueprint, which has targets including a steep 33% reduction in initial and whole life cost of assets, 50% faster delivery and 50% lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Our industry and sector are under a lot of pressure at the moment, with the public purse tightening, a looming skills gap and a productivity crisis. But not to worry, there are a number of innovations and advancements that can counter the challenges ahead.

Here is a quick a summary of everything you need to know about DfMA.

Design costs – Down / Integrity – Up

By bringing a culture of standardised design, DfMA removes the highly inefficient and expensive need to design the same component over and over, project after project. For an industry used to creating and delivering bespoke solutions, it is worth asking the question:

‘are we ready to shift towards systems designed once and used many times’

A number of companies have already developed catalogues of pre-designed components that are easily manufactured and can be used many times throughout different projects. Mott MacDonald are currently developing their own catalogue of over 80 DfMA products, ranging in purpose from a ready built sewage pumping station to more general components that could deliver sustainable refugee camps.

Laing O’Rourke are leading the expansion of the Northern Line in London with DfMA playing a key part also, with beams, columns, lattice slabs, twin walls and other concrete elements all precast. They have even invested heavily in a purpose-built factory - Explore Industrial Park (EIP) - to develop precast components.

In moving to off-site modular production, system and component design integrity can become fully developed and self-improving reducing flaws and onsite clashes due to inadequate undeveloped design at construction commencement stage. With connected SMART cities at the heart of UK Governmental thinking, BESA members are well placed in a DfMA world to ensure the intellectual engineering input into the built-assets is core to the whole-life design process.

Material waste in design – Down

Alongside cuts in material waste on site, DfMA can facilitate material savings in the early project design stage. Take the example of the Davyhulme Wastewater Treatment Works expansion just outside of Manchester. This project comprises 5000 precast elements being used for 17 new water treatment tanks, a new activated sludge plant, walkway bridges, walls and pipework assemblies. The use of precast, pre-stressed concrete panels and post-tensioning strands allows wall panels to be thinner than if they were constructed with traditional reinforced concrete cast onsite. These prefabricated elements will also deliver a saving in concrete and steel reinforcements of 15-20%.

Material waste in production – Down

European Commission research suggests an estimated 25% of all construction material ends in landfill! Environmental concerns aside, this simply isn’t cost efficient. An immediate benefit of DfMA is its ability to cut material waste, with more accurate manufacturing cutting waste in over-ordered raw materials while allowing cost-effective recycling of any unavoidable process waste.

Another potential step for DfMA to reduce more waste; Our industry is wedded to the linear economy where resources are extracted, used once and then end in landfill. A circular economy, where material, energy and heat waste stops being waste, but rather becomes a resource has untold benefits.

Time spent onsite – Down / Safety – Up

It has been estimated that precast panels in Davyhulme may cut project delivery by three months; yet another DfMA waste-cutting benefit. It makes sense that onsite assembly is quicker than traditional construction and estimates of how much time can be saved range from 50-90%. The less time spent on site the less risk to human capital and so the primary benefit of moving production from site to factory is to safeguard people - work is completed in safer factory settings, reducing or avoiding many site hazards.

With predesigned elements, M&E professionals can have a live real time input at a much earlier stage in a project rather than having to deliver ad hoc solutions onsite well into a build. With elements being designed once and used time and time again from project to project, buildings can be designed in a more fit-for-purpose way that enables more efficient long term maintenance and repair.

Whole Life Cost – Procurement – Down

Alongside savings in time and human resources at the design stage, the bottom line matters more than anything. DfMA represents a recognition by Government that as a major client that pays for not only the 10% construction cost of a built-asset, but also the 80% of the operating cost, UK public sector can no longer afford to tolerate an industry that is rejecting an evolutionary focus on design for efficient operation.

As DfMA drives down cost and helps savings in the whole life cost of assets, BIM data for DfMA produced elements provides asset owners with full procurement, assembly, operation and maintenance details. This allows assets to be managed more efficiently through the lifecycle (aka ‘soft-landings’). Once there is a business case for the sharing of product information as a means to lower costs, cooperation won’t just be logical – it will be essential.

Reduced time and cost of both reactive and planned maintenance can be achieved as the real-time replacement of data driven damaged components with ‘off the shelf’ data matched performance based products. This is more effective than costlier traditional planned and reactive based maintenance regimes, which we all know is time-intensive, based on best technical knowledge and predictions but often causing large scale disruption.

Historically, UK clients have accepted and encouraged lowest cost construction regardless of the negative impact cheap construction has on increased operating costs, but for major infrastructure and other public sector built-assets, which are constructed and owned by the same client, the focus and demand is shifting to reduce whole-life cost and increase whole-life performance of built-assets.

Current procurement structures have grown up around the segregation of construction and operation embedding and encouraging business models to thrive based on the inefficiency of lowest price construction led demand. Whole-life performance based procurement coupled with DfMA therefore threatens not only existing procurement models, but also the very business models, which are pinned to the way in which separate construction and FM industries have always operated.

For BESA members who are agile and willing to move with evolution, this may lead to a strengthening of their market position as the design, supply and installation, off-site or not, of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems will become integral to creating SMART climate controlled and intelligent buildings.

Carbon – Down 

Lowering the carbon footprint of components will also lower whole life costs of an asset through improved resource and energy efficiency. Throughout the DfMA process, with BIM used to design less material-intensive components, the associated logistics costs at specialised factories are reduced and more efficient than bringing raw materials to site.

Just what BESA members and the built-environment needs? – threat or opportunity?

Our sector and the wider construction and FM industries can be guilty of a slight protectionist attitude, with most businesses preferring not to share ideas and process improvement. But with DfMA there appears to be an initial move toward sharing product, system and design, performance data on a more open source basis. This ultimately benefits bill-payers and clients, but whether or not the wider industry will need to be forced into a period of collaborative information sharing remains to be seen.

Some will inevitably see the threats, but not the opportunities - asking:

  • Is this another cost saving exercise that dodges the question ‘what is being compromised’ to achieve cost reduction? – nothing if digital process drives cost reduction and productivity increases.
  • BIM increases accountability, so everyone can see what everyone else is doing +/-? Correct, which is why insurance and or project insurance is required, which is currently the case.
  • To change things or tackle unforeseen on site challenges will be very costly and require going all the way back to design? Are we ready for fundamental fault finding? Yes, this will drive continuous improvement in engineering quality and integrity.
  • DfMA doesn’t account for unforeseen on site challenges? Don’t expect DfMA to be a panacea to bad design/engineering.
  • You need permanent access to a computer, BIM program or designer? Yes - all areas of commerce require this and construction/FM is no different.
  • DfMA is prohibitively expensive –v- innovation is expensive, but critical mass drives down cost and it is prohibitively expensive to continue as we are.
  • Taking expertise off-site can reduce training and learning on the job! Or it can simply refine and enable learning in an R&D data led environment.
  • DfMA can lead to smaller contractors becoming even more dependent on the resources of large businesses with capital to deploy technology – Or it will simply shift the engagements of specialist SMEs to the appropriate point in the design and construction process, i.e. early design phase which has been a goal of specialists for over two decades.

There is no doubt that DfMA is an important part of reducing endemic waste; in raw materials, in human resource consumption and risk and carbon cost. However, it also requires a change in professional mind-set to depart from segregated bespoke, onsite construction and independent operation and facilities management, to a culture of designing assets formed from modular, manufactured components for onsite assembly.

The term ‘disruption’ is being thrown around a lot at the moment when it comes to the changing nature of industry, but disruption is not always a bad thing to drive efficiency and innovation especially as BESA members have always been active in all aspects of the design, supply, installation, operation and maintenance of building engineering services and therefore have a vested interest in the coming together of both the construction and the operation of built-assets.

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