One of the great hopes for transforming construction, the UK Government thinks, is standardization. Actually, it is a little more precise than that. They are investigating the potential of a ‘platform approach to design for manufacture and assembly’ (P-DfMA).

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority envisages this mouthful of an acronym as a workflow using a set of digitally designed, interoperable components made to agreed standards. The idea is that, rather than treating every new build as bespoke, it should as far as possible be designed from a versatile kit of parts.

A useful analogy is Meccano, which allows you to build an infinite variety of things from a finite set of components and fixings. What you lose in design flexibility, you more than make up for in efficiency, speed, cost savings, confidence of supply, and so on, benefits that the construction industry sorely needs.

The analogy is incomplete, however. As well as a core of Meccano parts, P-DfMA includes a digital library mirroring the physical products and, as the name suggests, an exchange and sharing platform that allows what the Transforming Construction Network+ calls ‘peripherals’ to add complementary bespoke elements.

Implementing P-DfMA would encourage offsite manufacturing with all of its virtues of better quality, less waste, fewer workers onsite, and better health and safety. In turn, this addresses all of the problems associated with the delivery of infrastructure projects in the UK – low productivity, low predictability, impending labour shortages, and low investment in innovation.

Successful solutions would help the UK to steal a march on its international competitors, generating considerable export opportunities to countries whose need for infrastructure is great and who face similar sectoral delivery challenges to us.

The UK Government’s brute £19 bn-a-year buying power could credibly be used to force the change. Not only that, a presumption in favour of P-DfMA in public procurement, especially if the £600 bn pipeline was borne out, would give manufacturers the scale, repeatability, and order-book certainty they need to invest in offsite factories.

All this sounds marvellous, but the devil is in the detail. After all, the industry’s supply chain already standardises to some extent, either to meet regulations, product standards, structural and design codes, or to facilitate, for example, proprietary modular systems. Frankly, the goal of universal standardisation has been kicking around for decades, but has never really taken off in the face of site-specific conditions, disparate client requirements, and a huge range of external socio-economic influences.

So the big question is what, exactly, will be different this time? How will the industry overcome the traditional barriers to deliver on P-DfMA’s promise?

The newly instituted Construction Innovation Hub, in partnership with the Manufacturing Technology Centre, has an R&D Platform Design Programme to find out. It will explore and eventually, they hope, validate a platform of core components that connect to a standardised structural frame along an efficient digital workflow. The field of enquiry extends to the rules and standards that should underpin the system.

The idea was in part informed by Bryden Wood, a multi-disciplinary design consultancy that is tackling many of the elephants in construction’s room. With an enlightened approach to R&D, they are already leaping ahead with P-DfMA with developer Landsec, turning conventional office procurement on its head for significant cost, speed, and health and safety gains.

And that’s the point: finding a way to make P-DfMA work will require the industry to ditch how it currently operates and, deploying what is known about advanced manufacturing and with a commitment to learn, invent a more logical, resource-efficient, and value-yielding process.

Research by contractor Mace foresees intellectual property (IP) rights and the public infrastructure pipeline as the main barriers to creating the self-sustaining market for P-DfMA. IP jealously hoarded by competing suppliers or, indeed, clients, will be less useful than if the government demands open standards. Neither will flourish without reliable forward orders.

P-DfMA has exciting potential, but even if it mainstreams as the infrastructure procurement route of choice, that is just a minor part of the ultimate objective in what I call the singularity. To pack a full-spectrum-value, triple-bottom-line punch, standardisation must also integrate responsible operational and end-of-life targets. Ignoring the circular economy and making too many compromises on function, maintenance, running costs and so on will fall short what taxpayers deserve and what the planet needs.

My next blog will look briefly at the role of automation in catalysing the singularity. However, none of it is possible without enabling the right conditions, the subject of my final blog.

Read Matt’s first blog: The Vision for Technology

Read Matt’s third blog: Automation for the People

Read Matt’s final blog: Enlightened Leadership, Trust and the Conditions Enabling Innovation

Matthew Thompson
Director of Matt Thompson Communications

Matt provides expert writing and editing services with a specialism in the built environment. Clients include building design consultancies, manufacturers, developers, publishers (including RIBA Journal), and industry organisations. He is currently a member of the RIBA’s Client Liaison Group and the CIC’s Building Quality Initiative Working Group. He was previously in charge of RIBA Publishing and was a Founding Director of the Centre for Understanding the Built Environment. Matt is also founder of Listenback.co.uk, the architect’s client feedback tool.

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