The Manufacturing Mindset and the Industrialization of Construction

Around the turn of the 20th century, manufacturers got serious about both automation and optimization. Liberated from the unwieldy requirements of water and steam power by newly available electricity, they found innovative ways to augment the abilities of human workers and automate tasks with machines and systems. Then they continued to tune those machines, processes, and people in a never-ending quest for better productivity. Quality went up and costs went down. The modern assembly line was born, and the modern consumer economy became possible.

Meanwhile, construction changed relatively little. Machines got larger and more powerful, but since each project was unique, built by a particular team on an individual site under distinct conditions, the kinds of control that could be achieved in a factory were unimaginable. Over the decades, buildings became more ambitious and the systems within them became more efficient, but the processes used to make them remained remarkably consistent. Low productivity was considered intrinsic to the industry, and optimization seemed out of reach.

Today, with the help of new digital tools, the idea of “industrializing” construction is gaining renewed attention and focus from owners, architects, and builders alike. The question is: can we automate and optimize the construction process without sacrificing the customizability that has been the sector’s hallmark?

Amy Marks thinks we can. The head of industrialized construction and strategy at Autodesk, Marks hosted several classes and panels on the topic at AU 2020. As former CEO of Xsite Modular and founder of multiple industrialized construction (IC) start-ups, she brings an entrepreneurial point of view to help shape Autodesk’s vision for the future of industrialized construction, finding ways for Autodesk tools to serve the needs of all stakeholders and working to build a collaborative community to share ideas and drive industry transformation. The goal? An IC ecosystem that helps everyone deliver better results and achieve better predictability and productivity.

Related: Innovative BIM Workflows for Industrialized Construction

Bringing Industrialized Construction into Focus

Prefabrication. DfMA. Modular. Industrialized construction can take many forms, and it can go by many names. But they all share a common focus. “We can think of industrialized construction as the application of manufacturing approaches to the entirety of the built environment,” Marks says in Autodesk’s Industrialized Construction Vision. “It’s about moving the make and operate information up into design.” That means looking for ways to first automate processes and augment human workers, then optimize.

Industrialized construction is an approach that can be scaled for large or small applications, Marks points out—a single component or an entire room.

  • Advanced building products are discrete, installable, off-the-shelf products such as windows, doors, and electrical panels that can be simply installed, rather than crafted on-site.
  • Single-trade assemblies are products from only one trade, such as plumbing arrays for hospital walls.
  • Multi-trade assemblies bring together components from multiple trades, such as corridor racks that hold mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.
  • Volumetric modular elements can be entire rooms—such as bathrooms, hotel rooms, and operating rooms—that are built in a factory, then delivered for assembly on-site.

Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) is an emerging term in the IC space. Marks points out that it’s distinct from prefabrication, but the two are closely related. DfMA refers to the design process, while prefabrication refers to the production process. In other words, DfMA is a broad term for the optimization of prefabrication through better design—making it easier to manufacture, ship, and assemble building components.

Amy Marks visits Binsky & Snyder, a construction engineering firm that has begun productizing piping, then explores the meaning of DfMA.

Certainty Is Better than Savings

In manufacturing, quality and cost are the driving forces behind industrialization—making better products that more people can afford. And those things matter in construction, too. But at the end of the day, what’s driving the current move toward industrialization in AEC is something else: predictability, a long-standing pain point in the industry.

Even the most experienced professionals have difficulty estimating exactly what a new project will cost and how long it will take to complete. “Most projects come in either over-budget or late,” Marks says, noting that this includes the biggest and most prestigious projects in the world. This drive for predictability has been cooked down to an aphorism credited to Jenna Taylor, director of construction at HCA Healthcare Capital Deployment: “Certainty is better than savings.”

Safety is another clear benefit, however. Dynamic conditions and massive machinery make the construction site notoriously dangerous. Factories enable us to control conditions much more carefully, making them far safer for workers. “Safety is the number one concern from every owner’s perspective,” says John Turner of Gafcon in An Owner’s Perspective on Industrialized Construction, a panel led by Marks. “The number one way to improve safety is to remove people from the site. Industrialized construction removes people from the site.”

Productization and the Drive for Better Standards

What will it take to advance the industrialization process? In addition to needed changes in insurance coverage and regulatory oversight, Marks says that the entire industry needs to focus on productization.

“Stop making snowflakes,” Marks says. “To achieve transformational change, we need to have certainty around our products. The generator manufacturer makes 200- or 250- or 300-horsepower generators, they won’t make you a 247- or 252-and-a-half. In the same way, we have to define our products.”

With fully standardized parts, everyone involved can understand each part down to the smallest specification. Designers can build with these blocks from the start, rather than trying to fit products into an existing bespoke design. And when all that information is digital, we can use machine learning, artificial intelligence, and computational design to do some of the actual grunt work of putting productized components together in a way that suits the needs of all stakeholders. “I don’t want to do DfMA by hand,” Marks says. “I want AI and machine learning to take what I know and blow that out.”

Industrialized approaches don’t have to compromise creativity or dictate design choices. Instead, they’re a way to hand off the routine work to automation so that the people can focus on the creative aspects of design. As Marks points out, industrially produced architecture projects can be “standardized in their bones, but look distinctive and unique on the surface.”

Amy Marks visits Environmental Air Systems to see their fabrication facility for multi-trade assemblies.

Building Better through Community

Continued innovation is key to the industrialized construction future, but Marks says there’s another factor that’s just as important: community. And Autodesk is committed to helping build and connect the IC community as it continues to improve.

Eventually, the goal is to co-create a robust ecosystem that will make an IC strategy easier to implement and easier to optimize, which will in turn provide greater predictability. “It’s about technology. It’s about people. It’s about everyone getting together around the table and everyone getting their chance to speak to their pains, their hopes,” Marks says.

The Way Forward

Industrialization isn’t a process with a finish line—it’s an ongoing imperative. Even today, manufacturers continue automating and optimizing, looking for new hardware and software that can handle tasks better, and new ways to measure and improve outcomes.

Construction came late to industrialization, but it’s making up for lost time, in part because mobile technologies and the cloud enable teams to access to their tools and their data wherever they go.

With a growing global population and increased need for housing at every income level, there’s no question that the construction industry needs more efficient, productive building processes. Industrialized construction will be essential to meeting global demand. And it’s already happening. “Two thirds of general contractors and three quarters of subcontractors already use multi-trade assemblies,” Marks points out. “Industrialized construction isn’t something that is happening in the future. This is happening now.”

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