Borrowing from manufacturing processes could dramatically improve construction productivity.
Productivity in construction has increased just 1 percent in two decades according to McKinsey. But what if construction could be more like manufacturing, which saw a 3.6 percent rise in productivity during the same period? With industrialized construction, proponents say it can be.
Industrialized construction (IC) applies manufacturing industry practices to construction projects, leveraging easy-to-construct designs, BIM, offsite prefabrication of modules or panels, component kits, robotics and other technology to facilitate faster, cheaper, high-quality builds.
IC starts with design. Architects/designers may use an approach called design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA), in which the design is optimized for easy fabrication of components, easy installation, and easy maintenance. Modeling software such as BIM is used to improve the design and address constructability issues and issues related to installation and maintenance at this early stage.
To improve constructability, the design may use as many repeated components as possible. Those components could be panels or modules such as school classrooms, hospital patient rooms or laboratory clean rooms. Workers then build the components in a factory, assisted by robots and other technology wherever possible.
Contractors can store prefabricated components at the factory, then deliver them on a just-in-time basis to the project site. That reduces the area required for material laydown and eliminates some of the noise and congestion that comes with materials deliveries. If there’s work that must be done on site — installation of doors or windows, for example — contractors may kit all the supplies required so workers don’t waste time looking for latches, locks or knobs.
IC has several advantages. With fewer and less-skilled workers needed, it could help solve the skilled labor shortage. In addition, IC has the potential to:
- Speed timelines by eliminating unique constructability challenges and unpredictability
- Offer better control over material inventory, since it’s easier to track supplies in a factory setting than in the field
- Dramatically reduce construction waste
- Increase control over the quality of built components
- Reduce construction site accidents by moving work to controlled offsite environments
- Reduce days lost to bad weather
Applications of industrialized construction
British design/architect/engineering firm Bryden Wood was an early adopter of DfMA. For pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, it designed a “factory in a box.” In a proof-of concept project, eight unskilled workers built a defect-free pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution center using color-coded components manufactured offsite and sent to the project site in shipping containers, packed in reverse order of use. The idea is that using this approach, GSK would be able to quickly build new facilities in underserved areas of Asia and Africa.
IC is gaining attention as a possible solution to the problem of affordable housing. In West Oakland, California, Factory_OS erected a five-story, 110-unit apartment complex in 10 days. It assembled all of the modular units in its factory in Vallejo and then trucked them to the construction site. According to the company, housing constructed in the factory is 20 percent cheaper and 40 percent faster to build than similar units built using conventional methods.
The future of industrialized construction
IC is in its infancy. One of several challenges: Few integrated digital workflow tools exist to enable architects, builders and owners to work together effectively.
AutoDesk is collaborating with Project Frog, a company that specializes in solutions for IC, to help fill that gap. The goal is to create a common data environment that will streamline design and engineering processes and optimize design for the manufacture of components. One element is the “Kit-of-Parts” platform, which will enable a building team to create standardized components that can be used in the design of custom buildings.
Although IC is being explored for replicable multifamily buildings, it isn’t necessarily about producing the same building over and again — churning out so many Model Ts, so to speak. As Project Frog put it, “The right application of IC unlocks mass customization at any scale.” Given the pressures of tightening budgets, tightening timelines and worker shortfalls, scalability could be the key that unlocks the productivity gains the industry has been chasing.
Most contractors won’t start adopting manufacturing practices tomorrow, but a trendline is emerging. IC firms are increasingly attracting venture capital, as described in a white paper on IC trends in the United States. And pressure from owners to build more efficiently could drive contractors to incorporate more IC methodologies into their projects. For example, some city government customers, including San Francisco, Vancouver and New York City, have expressed interest in funding IC projects, largely to address the need for more affordable housing. For many projects, contractors that can leverage opportunities to use elements of IC, such as offsite prefabrication and parts kits, likely stand to benefit.
Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.