From Grand Designs to AI driven robots; how is DfMA set to change the construction industry?


Over the next 12 months, Jo Lucas will be curating the inaugural Digital Scrapbook for the Major Project Association’s recently launched Knowledge Hub exploring, from 12 different viewpoints, Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) and the eco-system in which it needs to exist. The aspiration is to raise awareness and enable a conversation within the infrastructure community; bridging the gap between those in the frontier lands of this technology and the wider industry, in the hope that this will move the conversation forward and we will start to see a collaborative effort to resolve the inherent challenges.

Knowledge Resource

We are all feeling the tumultuous changes as we enter into what some call the 4th industrial revolution and others the fifth wave; disruptive technologies changing the very fabric of how we interact with each other and the built environment. Robotics, data, AI, IoT, blockchain, immersive mapping; all have the potential to fundamentally change our industry.  It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we will be able to define the current era we are living through, but it is clear that we are at a transition point; traditional methods are giving way under these disruptive technologies with other industries agilely taking advantage of the emerging opportunities.

Sometimes it can feel as if this change is leaving the construction industry behind.  We are an industry of contrasts; at the top, firms are consolidating into ever-larger parties whilst the supply chain itself is deeply fragmented.  The procurement landscape with its focus on short-term costs and contractual relationships stifles innovation and the diffusion of knowledge and skills.

There is urgent need for change.  The Farmer’s report’s stark ‘modernise or die’ warning set out the burning imperative for change [1].  Infrastructure is crucial to the continued relevance of the UK as a whole and to secure sustainable ways of living into the future.  The recently released Industrial Strategy [2] starts to set out some of the ways government intends to use the current scale of the construction portfolio to shift the industry and with the launch of the Centre for Digital Built Britain we are seeing the beginning of links from those at the frontier of change to the wider industry.

Core to modernising industry is a shift to Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA).  The Industrial Strategy sees DfMA as a means to bring about a step-change in the UK’s productivity.

So, what is DfMA and what needs to happen to bring it into the main stream?

The construction industry has for years relied on a ‘kit of parts’ approach to building; utilising standard components produced on an industrial scale and assembled in-situ.  There is an embedded supply chain in this process as refinements achieved over decades ensures that everything fits together, meets regulations, and is easily transported.

But, it also results in significant levels of waste.

The fabrication of standardised components relies on a global supply chain based on the economics of mass production, and their assembly results in the aggregation of tolerances built in to maximise their utility.   The result is an industry at the mercy of geo-political forces and lego-like buildings constrained by the available parts.

With the emergence of technologies, such as CNC machines, 3D printing, and robotics combined with big data and the ever-increasing sophistication of computational modelling, some Architects and Artists have been reassessing the manufacturing and assembly process through digital fabrication; producing buildings and art works which respond in a bespoke way to their site, minimising waste and seeking to reduce the distance between design and production.


Starting my own journey

My own journey toward DfMA started with the building of Kew House, a RIBA award-winning house and our family home

The house is made up of weathering steel shells, which were prefabricated in Hull and craned into place on a tight residential street, minimising disruption to the neighbours and providing much entertainment for the toddlers of Kew.  The basement became an on-site joinery workshop creating bespoke panelling, furniture and cabinetwork that was fitted by a site crew made up of craftspeople and architectural graduates; because they are the ones who know how to operate CNC machines.

See figures 1-5.

According to the RIBA judges this created a house, which is ‘entirely unique, avoiding reference to architectural convention’.  For us it is a home, which responds directly to how we live, with an abundance of light and space rarely achieved on tight London sites.  The process of building the house, the challenges we overcame, the community we created around the house and the realisation of the wider potential of this way of working has led me to explore what is holding us back as an industry from taking advantage of the manifold benefits.


And kicking off your journey

Over the next 12 months, I will be curating the inaugural Digital Scrapbook for the Major Project Association’s recently launched Knowledge Hub exploring, from 12 different viewpoints, DfMA and the eco-system in which it needs to exist.   The aspiration is to raise awareness and enable a conversation within the infrastructure community; bridging the gap between those in the frontier lands of this technology and the wider industry, in the hope that this will move the conversation forward and we will start to see a collaborative effort to resolve the inherent challenges.

And there are challenges, not least a strong resistance to change in a sector where innovation and collaboration are spoken of but are inconsistently achieved in practice.  The drive for innovation is off-set by the inherent risk in moving away from tried and tested means of delivery in a sector known for its tight margins.  Certainty is more highly prized than efficiency.   But the level of waste is significant and the industry is ripe for disruption.  The Infrastructure Client Group set out some sobering statistics on the level of waste within the industry [3]; the contractual overhead can be as high as 50%, 15% of materials end up in skips, 20% of costs are lost in rework and 50% of labour is lost in avoidable delays and other productivity issues. This level of waste is unacceptable and unsustainable.   A data driven approach combined with new technologies has the potential to reduce waste significantly creating a more sustainable way of delivering and maintaining our infrastructure.

Whilst it is tempting to focus on the truly disruptive technology such as fully 3-D printed houses, often it is in the cumulation of marginal gains, mixing bespoke with standardised, where real progress can be made.  Excitement in the potential of the technology should not be driving the solution.  We are unlikely to see building sites fully manned by AI driven robots in the near future, but we are seeing 3D printed bespoke components, laser cut temporary jigs, and robotic welding in hard to access areas.   By understanding both the potential and the limitations of the technology, clients, designers, and contractors can focus on the potential benefits.


A digital scrapbook

The idea of the scrapbooks is that it allows us to pick the best from emerging and established practice but also that we can use it to give you both an intellectual insight into this landscape (a reflection) and a live tour of the world of DfMA (an experience).

The first of these experiences in the event schedule associated with the Digital Scrapbook will be an opportunity for industry leaders to tour Here East at the Bartlett, experiencing the latest technology first-hand and exploring where and how the technology is best deployed.

The Digital Scrapbook will not only cover the technology at the centre of delivering DfMA but also the eco-system within which it needs to exist.

We will look into the potential of smart contracts based on blockchain technology to find new ways to procure.   DfMA requires a significant overlap between the demand and supply chains to optimise the design during the development phase.  A fundamental understanding of the fabrication and assembly process is required at the design stage.  The traditional, often highly specialised, silos are harder to maintain, as designers can no longer rely on standardised components to resolve issues at the interfaces. A back to basics approach is required and this is best achieved with collaboration at the development phase.  The way we procure and fund projects does not currently support this approach.   We will be running a highly interactive event to challenge the current procurement landscape and test the boundaries of what is possible.

The significant advances in immersive data visualisation could support the necessary collaboration at the development phase.  Having been burnt by poorly executed experimentations in BIM, with uncertain benefits and an over-relience on scarce resources, clients are reluctant to take full advantage of rapidly advancing scanning technology and data visualisation based on gaming platforms.  But, the presentation of information in the form of 2D technical drawings does not make complex data accessible. Immersive technologies have the potential to change how we collaborate and engage not only within project teams, but also with a much wider stakeholder community.

Perhaps bodies, such as Transport for London, have a role to play is creating a sustainable model for collaboratively building and maintaining immersive virtual worlds.  We will be exploring what it would take to create and maintain a digital-twin for London, with the opportunity to ride, walk or run through a virtual London.

With technology moving at such a pace, it is hard for individuals to keep up-to-date with the changes and the traditional educational routes are struggling to adapt. In particular, it is difficult to reach the 93% of the industry who are SMEs.  If there is a real desire to shift this fragmented industry we need to consider ways to put digital skills in the hands of SMEs.  In an industry, which is so transitory and project based, training cannot be left to the few companies with a training budget.   There is a need to socialise the new technologies ensuring that a critical mass make the behavioural and cultural shift needed to adapt our current business models.   We will be looking into new and sometimes radical models being developed to support this shift.

We will also question the fundamental way in which our delivery organisations are set up.  Emerging work on network analytics is supporting very different corporate structures and ways of understanding and managing your project teams.  In particular the way data is used to support more decentralised decision-making.

We will conclude the scrapbook with the inaugural Spokes UK, a 3-day cycle ride across the UK.  Inspired by the group of MIT and Harvard students, Spokes America, who cycle across the US each summer holding learning festivals to promote STEM learning we will be calling on those who are interested in DfMA to join us on a sponsored ride holding co-learning workshops along the route with SMEs and future DfMA specialists to share our combined skills and make this a reality.

If you want to contribute to the DfMA Digital Scrapbook, be kept informed of events or become a sponsor of Spokes UK email, follow @majorprojecthub and register on the Major Projects Knowledge Hub




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