The digital age of offsite manufacture has arrived

The digital age of offsite manufacture has arrived
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The construction industry is now looking to the future, as the latest digital tools offer intriguing possibilities.


The construction industry is now looking to the future, as the latest digital tools offer intriguing possibilities. An article for the World Economic Forum pointed out: ‘Unlike other industries, the engineering and construction sector has been slow to adopt new technologies, and has certainly never undergone a major transformation.’

However, this is now changing with the use of digital technologies, integrated within a central platform of Building Information Modelling (BIM). A cross-industry report from Oxford Economics for Virgin Media Business that analysed 1,000 companies, shows that construction has the most potential for gains.

According to Volker Buscher, director of digital at Arup, engineering and construction is traditionally perceived as a manual industry but digital technology is reshaping the sector. ‘We use five dimensional modelling techniques to visualise buildings and structures before they are built, looking not only at a 3D design but also predicting economic and environmental impact,’ he said.

While there are clear benefits of such tools, you don’t need to invest in a robotic building site (see more here) to boost productivity and cut costs. In fact, the latest ‘smart buildings’ have their quirks too. ‘Things that have lots of mechanics, or software that gets outdated or sensors that go wrong mean that maintenance of smart buildings is an ongoing battle,’ said designer and instructor David Correa, from the Institute for Computational Design at the University of Stuttgart. (His team was inspired by a pine cone to create a structure that opens when it’s sunny and closes when it rains.)

Digital technology is also being used to facilitate a familiar solution – off-site manufacturing (OSM). This has developed over decades, with its beginnings in post-war housing. The surplus of steel and aluminium production and the need for industries to diversify following World War II led to prefabrication, resulting in many types of concrete, timber, steel and hybrid framed systems. Industrialised building gained a boost in the 1960s, with most of the construction work done in a factory and simple assembly operations taking place on site.

More recently, the Rethinking Construction report noted the successful approach in Europe, ‘using innovative forms of building, together with a high degree of prefabrication, pre-assembly and standardisation’. Constructors and developers attributed efficiency savings to ‘pre-planning with suppliers and component manufacturers to minimise the time actually spent on site’.

According to an overview of offsite production, prepared by the HSE (the Health and Safety Executive) the UK construction industry is again experimenting with alternative construction techniques: ‘There is now a shift towards prefabrication through political pressure to construct affordable quality homes, and by major problems inherent within the construction industry.’

The market for OSM is for components and assemblies, according to Davis Langdon, in an article for ‘Specification of preassembled pipework, prefinished windows and doorsets, modular lighting and other systems has made a significant contribution to increasing the quality and performance standards of buildings with little impact on out-turn cost.’

Key benefits of offsite construction and prefabrication

The benefits of off-site manufacture are considerable; however, proper planning is required to ensure a project runs smoothly. It can be difficult to remedy a mistake made at the specification stage. The use of digital technology and BIM software effectively minimises the risk of human error.

  • Less on-site work is required. As a result, there is less local disruption through dust and noise, and fewer safety risks, especially if the need to work at height is eliminated.
  • Deadlines and budgets are met. There are none of the delays associated with construction sites, from bad weather to a shortage of skilled labour. It is said that buildings using OSM can be completed up to 50% faster than traditional site-based methods.
  • It is more sustainable. According to an article by Alistair Gibb, Professor of Construction Engineering Management at Loughborough University, factories can control energy and emissions more easily than construction sites, and are still better able to reduce waste and recycle unused materials.
  • Easier access to labour. Manufacturing facilities can be located in areas where skilled workers are available.
  • Excellent quality control. As the factory environment is more easily controlled, the components are more likely to be produced as intended.

OSM stars in the construction industry

The Offsite Construction Awards rewards outstanding examples of prefabrication and factory-based methods. This year, Urban Splash won the award for Housing Project of the Year, for its next-generation modular housing, where customers configure the layouts. The Best Use of Steel award went to EOS Facades, for the Sir David Attenborough Building – part of a £58 million facelift secured by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. EOS was selected for the ability to ‘use leading-edge technology to design and precision engineer pre-assembled steel solutions to meet the bespoke requirements’. Managing director Steve Thompson commented: ‘As a manufacturer of light steel frame solutions, EOS Facades take full advantage of offsite manufacturing techniques by embracing Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) protocols and integrating BIM requirements.

The ultimate riser door solution

Much of the success of Selo is a direct result of being able to offer the benefits of offsite manufacture. With the aid of BIM objects and CAD drawings, we have made it simple for our products to be specified and installed. Our Quadra design is a prime example of a product that is perfect for prefabrication. This metal door with insulated core is increasingly used in premier developments to conceal riser doors and service cupboards. Hung on a unique quick-release pivot system, it is supplied with all ironmongery pre-fitted for quick installation.

The beauty of offsite manufacture is that through the latest digital technologies, clients are able to specify what they need and see their project develop quickly, with minimal disruption, traffic and waste. It’s encouraging to see how this aspect of the industry has evolved, and enabled companies to implement lean manufacturing, to offer the best value, quality and sustainability. To find out more about how we can facilitate your project, do contact us on 020 3880 0339 or