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Design for Manufacture and Assembly buildings
The Royal Victoria Building at Edinburgh’s Western General Hospital was one of the UK’s first factory-made buildings.
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Why DfMA is the key to unlocking UK construction’s potential

Ben Carlisle, Global Practice Leader, DfMA

As the new government prepares to ramp up the UK’s infrastructure spending, the construction industry is facing significant challenges. How can it meet the government’s stated ambition to deliver major infrastructure in half the time, with half the carbon, and for two-thirds of the cost? How about with an increasing skills shortage?

It’s clear that we cannot do it just by tweaking the way that we currently work - the only way of doing more is to do things very differently.

One thing that needs to change is the obsession with one-off projects, where everything is seen as special and bespoke. It’s this mindset that leads us to be constrained by the traditional project management triangle where cost, quality and time are interlinked. This dictates that if you want to deliver something of quality, you have to either take longer, or accept higher costs, or both. On the other hand, if you emphasise the need to do something quickly, then quality and cost will suffer. And so on.

The way to break this relationship is to concentrate on process. We have to do things in a better way. I believe that Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) combined with other modern methods of construction, is a big part of the answer to that challenge.

DfMA as a concept has been around for many years, but its interpretation in the industry seems to vary. There is a misconception that DfMA is all about offsite construction. In fact, DfMA is a collaborative design approach, a process that makes things easy to make and easy to put together (ideally including commissioning and handover) in addition to meeting in use requirements. It is agnostic of the way assets are delivered, focusing only on making that delivery process better. It enables offsite construction and makes it more effective, but the two are different things, and just because you have one it does not mean you have the other. A bridge, for example, will very likely be built offsite, because it is too large to be built in situ, but this does not mean that it is easy to make or put together - it could be an absolute nightmare.

A focus on process should unlock a more collaborative relationship with the supply chain. If the engineer designs something and then throws it over to a contractor, then even if that contractor is involved as early as possible, they are still fundamentally taking that design and then figuring out how to make it. You are therefore reliant on the team you assemble at that time having the skills and experience to build the design in the best way, or to identify where the design needs amending.

By contrast, if we as designers started with an understanding of how something will be made, and the scheme was designed to suit that method of construction, then the quality of what is produced will depend on the design, which is where we want to be.

Getting to that point requires an understanding of how to minimise the parts required for construction, how to make things easy to assemble, and a more explicit understanding of the plant and processes used during construction and their implications on cost, time and quality.

This is easier said than done, of course, and a major obstacle to acquiring that knowledge is to do with the way the industry is structured. Supply chains are fragmented, and everyone has a specialism. Tier 1 contractors may be reluctant to engage the supply chain until they have enough detail from the designer to have some certainty about what they are dealing with. So you end up in a chicken and egg situation, where you can’t engage the right supplier until you have a detailed design, but by the time that has happened you have gone too far for them to have sufficient influence.

Thankfully, there has been a great deal of innovative thought recently about how the industry might be improved, and some asset owners are exploring ways to make the supply chain more collaborative, most notably through Project 13. Rather than a convoluted and transactional supply chain, where A supplies B, who supplies C and then D, whilst each seeks to protect their own interests, we may see more collaborative arrangements where A,B,C and D are working together in a meaningful way as a single enterprise.

To operate this model at scale and really unlock the benefits, we need to get to the point where we are configuring and deploying a kit of parts. Each part in the kit goes together in a set way, is easy to make and assemble, and can be scaled up and down and applied to as many assets as possible. Our process, our recipe, will be the same, but we will be able to adjust it to fit - to use the food analogy - the number of people we want to feed and their requirements. This provides the certainty and economies of flow needed to invest more in manufacturing capacity.

Manufacture of the parts will be able to take place where it makes the most sense, economically and on a human level. Factory hubs around the UK could be used to make things that will end up being installed in the more expensive, space-constrained cities. Rather than commuting to a freezing cold site which might be hundreds of miles from home, construction workers could have the certainty of a steady place of work, in a controlled environment sheltered from the elements, where tasks are standardised and they can receive better training. That’s got to be a good thing.

If we can get this right, we should be able to deliver more as an industry, so UK PLC will benefit considerably. Deployment of the process around the world should also be simpler: assembly should be culturally agnostic, so anybody can do it using pictorial instructions, like IKEA’s instruction manuals. With a standard kit of parts, upgrades, replacement and renewal become quicker and more straightforward. We move from continuous reinvention to continuous improvement.

There's a perception that if you standardise things, then you destroy creativity and you remove part of the engineer's raison d'etre. I think we've just got to get over that. We have a duty to play our part in providing for the four billion more people who are going to be on the earth in the next 15 years, and to make the money that is available by governments for infrastructure spending go as far as it can. And to move in that direction, we’ve got to move on from traditional ways of working: to be willing to break something and then fix it in a different way.

You can read more about smart approaches to procurement and delivery, including Project 13, in the Mott MacDonald white paper ‘New Dimensions to Delivery’ available here

Ben Carlisle

Global Practice Leader, DfMA

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