Manufacturing is shifting the future of construction

The future of design and construction is about finding efficiencies and building a faster, cheaper and better quality product. Design for manufacture and assembly (DFMA) incorporates all those elements under one roof, stated several industry experts during a recent presentation on the future of modular construction.

Future of Modular Construction

PCL used virtual construction technology and off-site modular construction techniques to prefabricate and install 360 patient washrooms and telecommunications/data rooms for the Humber River Hospital project.

Terry Olynyk, manager of agile construction with PCL Constructors Canada, and Gareth Burton, senior vice-president of construction for First Capital Realty, hosted the session as part of the Ontario General Contractors Association's 10th symposium in Blue Mountain recently.

With construction timelines tightening all the time, off-site manufacturing can make the construction process more efficient, Olynyk and Burton explained.

"What you have in construction is a very inefficient process of delivery," said Olynyk. "So it's converting construction to manufacturing and by doing so there is inherent productivity benefits. We're shifting the industry completely. So you're going to find productivity gains by virtue of the fact that you're doing manufacturing versus traditional means and methods."

"DFMA is a way of thinking, a way of constructing and a way of engineering solutions," added Burton. "It is a proposition that will improve safety, improve quality and improve predictability with an outcome of value creation."

The term DFMA comes from the manufacturing industry and the concept has been around for decades. The method has also come to be used in the construction industry over the years.

"This is not a new concept," Olynyk noted. "What's new today for us and giving us that extra level of comfort and confidence is the virtual modelling, the digitization. It's the digitization that's going to really fuel our ability to build off-site with accuracy."

Construction methods haven't changed much over the last 100 years and the industry has been slow to adopt new technologies, he added.

"There's plenty of room for growth as we really start to understand the technologies available to us," Olynyk said.

"They (the construction industry) haven't embraced the entire concept of the digital future and it isn't just the construction companies that have to evolve. It's the architects, the consultants, the subtrades. It has to be an alignment and once that starts to happen it will really fuel a different future for the construction industry." Olynyk spoke about different procurement methods and how Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) and DFMA work together.

"This model allows people to collaboratively work in a process that allows you to design, allows you to plan construction. You can even start to build elements in the factory all while saving time," he said.

Burton said the culture in the industry and the way people think about construction projects needs to change and proper planning is key.

"Time literally is money," said Burton. "We're definitely not spending enough time at the start of the project, we don't plan properly. The thing that really intrigued me (about DFMA/modular construction) was the value of engineering a solution. It was taking something and saying 'we're not going to do that anymore. We're going to put our heads together and make it better. The construction site doesn't need to look like it does right now, it can be so much better.' "

Burton said construction is currently a process of incomplete information, developing estimates, approximations, rules of thumb, assumptions, best guesses, cost allowances, offers, predictions and revisions that translate into one thing: risk.

"We are all comfortable with the idea that we are estimating everything and then we're all comfortable to be given a fixed price based on everything we've estimated," said Burton. "The industry has got used to that risk. What I'm saying is, and what many people are saying is, what about if we thought about it differently? What about if we thought and we truly planned out our project in a way that uses techniques from manufacturing — the way you schedule, the way you make deliveries?"

The shift in workforce location from onsite to off-site can also dramatically reduce incidents, improve predictability and quality, reduce defect and commission time, improve productivity, reduce waste and put tradespeople into a manufacturing environment where they can excel, Olynyk noted.

"When you start to get into these types of projects and start to approach it like an assembly line, or a manufactured site rather than a traditional construction site, you start to realize the benefits of time and the elimination of waste," said Olynyk. "I think often for this type of approach people have to see it, feel it, touch it and experience it at least once for it to really start to take shape in their mind and give them confidence."

In terms of cost, DFMA provides efficiencies but there is a steep learning curve and it does take a while to adjust to the new method and to get the cost level to the point where it is actually cheaper to deliver the project from a manufacturing point of view, Olynyk explained.

"I don't want people to expect that if they go down this road they are going to be instantly efficient at it — this is about a four- to five-year learning curve," said Olynyk. "It definitely works."

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