Prefab Construction’s Benefits Grow With Design for Manufacture and Assembly

July 22, 2020 Markkus Rovito

A growing movement in the construction industry—called design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA)—takes traditional design and grafts two important goals onto it: that the products will be easy to manufacture and that those manufactured products will be easy to assemble into a larger construction.

Not coincidentally, the construction industry stands to benefit greatly from an uptick in DfMA, whose principles contribute to making construction projects faster to complete, safer for workers, and environmentally friendlier.

design for manufacture and assembly
Construction of a modular home inside of a warehouse.

DfMA belongs to a cadre of similar practices that go by more names than a Leo Tolstoy character: modern methods of construction (MMC), prefab construction, prefabrication, modular construction, off-site construction, and off-site manufacturing.

Those terms aren’t completely synonymous, but they all serve to make the construction process more like manufacturing. They move construction processes off-site and into factories, where there is greater opportunity to incorporate the latest technologies in CAD, 3D printing, and more. Dig in below to learn more about DfMA’s specific benefits to construction.

1. DfMA: The New Version of Arts and Crafts?

Similar to the Arts and Crafts movement, DfMA is characterized by designers and architects who must embrace and explore the way things are made. They need an understanding of factory processes and what manufacturing machinery can do before they begin designing. Yet that doesn’t mean architects and designers have fewer creative options. The old view of modular or prefab buildings looking dull and formulaic has given way to a wealth of flexibility and customization possibilities within DfMA. Designers and manufacturers alike have innovated new options for facades, building interfaces, detailing, and more. Investing the time to work with contractors and manufacturers also can pay off, as there are increasing opportunities for DfMA work in single- and multi-unit housing and public-sector building. Read the article.

2. Embracing Modern Construction Methods

Off-site manufacturing for construction lets forward-looking construction companies embrace modern methods that have been difficult to incorporate in outdoor environments, such as 3D printing of components, Internet of Things (IoT) sensor connectivity, and CAD. Off-site manufacturing has resulted in decreased on-site construction hours, as well as increased deployment speeds. It comes as no surprise that industry organizations predict that, in 2025, 50% of construction projects will employ off-site manufacturing and/or 3D printing. That demand will force changes to the construction supply chain, but the more digitally connected workflows will help those changes mirror the efficiencies of the modern manufacturing supply chain. Read the article.

design for manufacture and assembly katerra vaishnavi tech
Katerra’s 521,400-square-foot Vaishnavi Tech Square in Bengaluru, India, integrates DfMA and factory-made building components. Courtesy of Katerra.

3. Safety First: Prefabricated Construction for the Win

Off-site prefab construction saves resources and time, for sure—projects can be completed 33% to 50% faster—but it’s also safer than on-site construction. Both scenarios come with similar hazards from slips, falls, overexertion, collisions with objects, and worker complacency. However, prefabricating components such as walls, floors, or even entire kitchens and bathrooms in a factory reduces the risks of falling from the higher heights of construction sites. Factories are also inherently more controlled environments because they stay well-lit, dry, and well-ventilated. And the more work that’s prefabricated, the fewer people that are needed on-site, meaning fewer resources spent on on-site safety supervision. Read the article.

4. Modularity Solidarity: Working Together on Industry Standards

At the Modular Building Institute’s World of Modular conference earlier this year, 900 architects, builders, and off-site manufacturers discussed a core theme of establishing industry standards and best practices around the systems, designs, contracts, and other details of the US modular and off-site building industry. Such a cooperative effort among modular business players would aim to garner political support, secure reliable lending sources, and attract “serial builder” clients like large hotel chains. That kind of widespread acceptance for modular building is necessary to benefit the whole industry by reaching economies of scale and achieving lower costs. Currently, the US modular market lags a bit behind those in Japan, Australia, and Europe, where standards are practiced, and modular building is more accepted. However, new efforts like the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Building Construction program are making up ground by bringing together professionals from across the industry to accelerate the deployment of high-performance modular and prefabricated construction technology. Read the article.

design for manufacture and assembly factory_os
Factory_OS in Vallejo, CA, focuses on affordable housing and builds easily assembled components with the concepts of DfMA.

5. And It’s Better for the Environment, Too

Greater adoption of DfMA and off-site manufacturing will help the construction industry meet the growing demand for retail, residential, school, and hospital construction in rapidly urbanizing places such as India, where construction projects suffer frequent delays. Advanced technologies used in DfMA and off-site manufacturing—including 3D printing, robotics, and BIM (Building Information Modeling)—contribute to the advantages of speed, versatility, durability, safety, and quality that these methods enable. Off-site manufacturing also mitigates environmental damage because the practice uses less water, reduces dust pollution, and optimizes material usage. For example, precast concrete units can be reused or almost 100% recycled. Read the article.

6. Automation Keeps Projects Short, Sweet, and Green

Meeting deadlines has become a problem also in the United States, which has not fully recovered the 2 million construction jobs that were lost starting with the Great Recession in 2007 and lasting through 2011. Yet the greater adoption of modular and prefab building makes it easier to bring different types of automation into the construction workflow and shorten the project length. Following the principles of DfMA within modular and prefab compounds the effect; DfMA leads to stronger design plans over traditional construction and helps projects progress even faster. Construction automation also helps process and install wood, composites, and plastics more efficiently, and those materials can be more environmentally friendly than concrete and steel. Read the article.

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