At Bryden Wood, we strive to create exceptional design solutions that deliver better value for clients and a better built environment for society. Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) has long been part of our philosophy and it is exciting to see an increasing focus on DfMA in the construction industry around the world. My recent article “Construction Platforms for Asia: Thoughts on the DfMA Journey in Asia-Pacific” discussed some recent developments in my region but the interest in using DfMA on construction projects to drive benefits related to cost and programme, quality, productivity, health and safety and sustainability is growing worldwide.

As DfMA grows from a niche topic into a mainstream conversation in the construction industry, more and more government and private sector stakeholders are getting involved developing strategies and finding opportunities. However, there is a fundamental challenge hindering newcomers to DfMA and MMC – understanding what these terms actually mean.

Confusion is a barrier to change: talking about Modern Methods of Construction

The DfMA landscape is littered with acronyms, abbreviations and terminology that is often poorly defined and even more poorly understood. Terms such as DfMA, MMC, Offsite construction, Prefab, PPVC, MiC and many more are often used interchangeably resulting in great confusion not only for newcomers but also established players in the industry.

I believe the lack of clarity around nomenclature in the DfMA landscape has become a major barrier to change. A clear and universally understood definition framework would help increase stakeholder awareness and confidence in adopting innovative construction methods and could help encourage a more structured and focused conversation across the industry at large.

The minefield of different terms means there is a tendency to assume that the landscape is complicated but there really is a simple relationship between all these different elements and it starts with DfMA.

DfMA is a design approach

The clue is in the name. “Design for Manufacture and Assembly” is a design approach. Conventional design either has a presumption towards conventional construction or is agnostic regarding the construction method. Conversely, a DfMA design is developed to be constructed in a particular way.

When designing for manufacture and assembly, the designer must find the best way to meet the client’s requirements by considering the most efficient way to manufacture elements of the building and the most efficient way to assemble them on site. Manufacturing and assembly processes can be carried out in off-site or near-site factories and consolidation centres and also within the site itself.

DfMA means the designer needs to consider the construction methods that will be used from early in a project. Furthermore, to construct a building that has been designed using DfMA the builder needs to understand the basis of the design and how it has informed the construction approach. This means DfMA can be much more collaborative than conventional design, bringing the designer and builder closer together to pursue a common goal.

There are many different methods of constructing a building. In addition to conventional methods, alternatives have been developed that deploy prefabrication, pre-assembly, design standardisation and/or automation to some degree and these are collectively referred to as Modern Methods of Construction (MMC).

Exploring the MMC toolkit:  from offsite construction to PPVC and beyond

MMC is the collective term for the innovative construction methods that can be deployed by the DfMA designer. MMC can be considered as the DfMA designer’s “toolkit”. The DfMA designer finds the most suitable innovations in the MMC toolkit (or develops new innovations) to meet a project’s unique challenges.

There are many construction innovations that can be considered MMC. The UK’s Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) recently established a Joint Industry Working Group on MMC which proposed the following categorisation: 3D primary structural systems, 2D primary structural systems, Non-system components, Additive Manufacturing, Assemblies and sub-assemblies, Material and Product Innovations and Site Process Innovations[1].

This categorisation is quite diverse and includes a range of pre-manufactured and pre-assembled systems but also non-system components, site-based material innovations and process innovations.

There is no fixed list of MMC methods in each category. There is great scope for the construction industry to innovate and develop new MMC methods to expand the toolkit and enhance the DfMA designer’s ability to achieve benefits on future construction projects.

Under the MHCLG categorisation, volumetric modular construction (known in Singapore as Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction or PPVC and in Hong Kong as Modular Integrated Construction or MiC) is an example of a 3D primary structural system.

In addition to volumetric solutions, many other different MMC methods including flat-pack and componentised systems are primarily prefabricated and are often grouped under the umbrella term “Offsite”.

The future of construction: not just components

The MHCLG categorisation of MMC is comprehensive and includes the application of digital tools to drive productivity improvements both on site and in factories. The use of digital tools is an important part of DfMA which relies on capturing knowledge about how a building will be delivered from the earliest stages.

The rapid pace of change in digitisation has created a great opportunity to integrate DfMA into projects in ways not previously possible. Data contained within digital objects can be used to explore, test and validate construction methods from the earliest project stages.

The role of the designer is evolving to include the creation and maintenance of digital assets with great potential value. Parties both within and outside the construction industry are developing new digital innovations to expand the MMC toolkit and realise this value.

A summary of key DfMA principles

I have tried to summarise the above in simple terms to illustrate how the DfMA landscape can be viewed in the context of the industry.

  • DfMA is a design approach that considers ways to efficiently construct buildings by manufacturing and assembling their constituent parts.
  • Designers apply DfMA by considering, evaluating and applying the toolkit of innovations collectively referred to as MMC.
  • The MMC toolkit includes a range of systems, components and material and process innovations including off-site and site-based solutions. New MMC innovations are developed all the time.

Design to Value: moving forward with DfMA

As designers we at Bryden Wood believe strongly in the DfMA approach and have used it successfully on many projects to achieve considerable benefits.

We advocate for any designer of buildings to apply a DfMA approach by considering efficient construction methods to leverage the benefits of manufacturing and assembly, and design with them in mind from the earliest stage. 

Getting started with DfMA is the hardest part and too big a topic to discuss in detail here but a great first step is to keep up to date with MMC innovations and think about how those innovations can be used to deliver better project outcomes.

Clients can support greater uptake of DfMA by demanding the best value project outcomes to ensure a benefit-driven approach to MMC adoption is applied on their projects.

As the MMC toolkit grows it becomes more and more powerful. It is great to see players across the whole construction industry developing new innovative approaches to construction that expand the MMC toolkit.

To help the industry move forward, governments also have a role to play by encouraging and rewarding innovation and providing streamlined (but still robust) regulatory approvals processes for MMC innovations.

With a strong and diverse MMC toolkit and growing DfMA experience in the design professions, the industry as a whole will be better positioned to seize the opportunity to deliver better performing buildings, with less resources, that deliver maximum value to clients. These are the key aims of a Design to Value approach.