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Offsite progression and the shift towards modular technology

posted: 22nd Aug 2019

Jackie Maginnis, chief executive of the Modular & Portable Building Association, discusses the shift away from traditional methods of construction towards modular technology

The government and the wider public sector are the biggest clients of the construction industry. Evidence shows that the government has an important role in encouraging and facilitating the uptake of offsite manufacture. In the 2017 Budget, the Chancellor announced a “presumption in favour” of offsite construction by 2019 across suitable capital programmes.

Historically, manufacturing operations have been considered extensions to construction processes instead of an integral and important part. This perception is changing. As offsite has become an increasingly dominant force that utilises high levels of technology, the lines between manufacturing, engineering and construction have become blurred, creating a need for new skills and redefining existing ones.

“As units are factory manufactured, stringent quality control processes can be undertaken within these well-managed environments.”

The more the offsite industry digitalises, the more the industry uses technology in end-to-end processes, attracting a new cohort of skilled operatives and technicians.

Offsite technology offers benefits that have had a huge positive impact on the construction industry, bringing longstanding traditional practices up to date.

The first key shift away from traditional methods is that build processes take place in controlled factory conditions – the far-reaching implications of this require a change of mindset and approach in the construction industry.

Advanced offsite systems and digital technology: DfMA and BIM

At the core of offsite manufacture, Design for Manufacture & Assembly (DfMA) protocols and Building Information Modelling (BIM) enables optimal configuration of offsite solutions onsite by engaging with multidiscipline and multi-tier suppliers from the beginning of the design development process.

DfMA facilitates early design detail and three-dimensional design information, while BIM minimises the risk of errors by eliminating the time-consuming process of translating engineers’ information into cutting lists and assembly drawings. BIM also facilitates the optimising and testing of designs in virtual and pre-production environments.

Technology is ever-evolving, and the offsite industry is now exploring integrating BIM and digital design specifications with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Material Requirement Planning (MRP) using “intelligent graphics”. This technology will permit manufacturing simulation and visualisation, clash detection and virtual onsite assembly modelling/programming, which can be enhanced using augmented and virtual reality digital developments. Digital technology is as relevant to offsite manufacturing processes as it is to offsite design and architecture.

The optimum technology: Modular construction

Offsite manufacture encompasses a variety of panelised and volumetric modular methods of construction. At the forefront of offsite techniques, modular building has had a remarkable impact on reducing costs while increasing quality and safety measures. Having gained considerable momentum over the past few years, modular construction makes up 60-70% of offsite manufacture and reduces build times by an impressive 50-60%.

Module selection is influenced by transportation dimensions and shipping distances. A number of other factors are also holistically considered to achieve optimal design efficiency: module connection details and quantities, installation and crane costing rates, specific site logistics, foundation/transfer deck, volumes of required materials and other service core requirements.

The demand for customisation has led the manufacturing industry to develop methods for adaptation during mass production while meeting individual customer needs. These methods identify design parameters that can be integrated into architectural CAD applications using Revit structures. Design parameters include:

  • Customer view that controls the modular design according to requirements.
  • Engineering view that constrains the module design according to deflection, strength, wind loads, fire, acoustic and building regulations.
  • Production view that identifies product dimensions and transportation constraints according to factory regulations and capacity.
  • Site view for assembly constraints on site according to site layout/plans.

Benefits of modular and volumetric technology

Modular technology and volumetric practices augment the construction industry with a multitude of benefits that span from greener, healthier environments to maximised sustainability, heavily reduced costs and quick build times.

Volumetric technology allows providers to customise any modular building to meet exacting needs and blend in with surroundings. Each individual material can be selected specifically for its performance characteristics, tailoring every inch of a modular build. Eco-friendly materials are often specified, and waste is recycled for future projects wherever possible. Not only this, but components are also available in a range of sizes for expansions whenever necessary.

As units are factory manufactured, stringent quality control processes can be undertaken within these well-managed environments. These in-house conditions also prevent weather from inhibiting the manufacturing process, guaranteeing efficiency. On top of this, modular construction enables site work and building processes to be completed simultaneously, reducing labour costs and build times.

Transportation rarely poses issues, as pre-constructed, self-contained units can be transported to virtually any location, ideal when new premises need to be constructed within limited timeframes. As modules are designed to withstand long-distance transportation and craning onto foundations, they are structurally stronger than most traditionally constructed building materials.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Adjacent Digital Politics Limited 2019