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Introducing Design for Building Manufacturing

The modular building industry is focusing more on design for manufacturing (DFM), also known as design for manufacturing and assembly (DFMA). This is very exciting. We need to think about modular buildings as products. This approach makes sense.

Starting with a definition, DFM is a general design and engineering practice to develop products so that they are easy to manufacture. This post explores the DFM framework and the initial challenges of applying this to modular buildings. (source)

East West Manufacturing states five principals for DFM.

1. (Manufacturing) Process

2. Design

3. Material

4. Environment

5. Compliance/Testing

This framework is for typical manufacturing. Does it change for modular building manufacturing? I think it does.

There are obvious differences in the products. East West is using the example of a computer mouse. Modular buildings are much bigger and more complex. However, the big challenge that I see is that computer mice were developed as something to be manufactured. Buildings were not.

Building codes and standards are developed using conventional construction materials and techniques as a framework. Architecture and engineering education and process are defined in the same framework. The process of factory-built buildings is not widespread.

Modular buildings are pushing against centuries of conventional construction logic. A highly regulated process that has been developed for a conventional approach does not fit in a factory. Not perfectly, anyway.

Let’s examine some of the principals stated above.

The first step in DFM is to understand manufacturing process. The modular building industry is still figuring out what this process should be. Companies are approaching it very differently. Some choose automated robotic arms, others an assembly line with stations. The actions are still pretty similar to that of conventional construction: studs, screws, sheet rock, paint.

Jumping down to step three, are these materials really the best we can do in a manufacturing environment? They are great for conventional construction. They are small and mobile, which is easy to move around a stationary building. On an assembly line the product is delivered to the builders. The pieces no longer have to be small.

Before we can design within a process, the process needs to be defined. Before the process is developed, materials need to be chosen. It becomes a chicken and egg scenario.

This means we need to define a DFM approach for buildings. It is going to look a bit different than the mature DFM principals that East West Manufacturing states. This is only because our products and materials are still being developed from a very early stage. We are still learning what conventional practices to keep and which ones do not work in manufacturing.

Lastly, here is a bit of a disclaimer. Modutize exists to provide insights and opinions. It is not its place to call any process good, bad, right or wrong. Conventional techniques have suited us well for centuries. They are now getting too expensive to produce affordable housing. DFM is an approach that has made manufacturing more affordable in general. This blog’s goal is to define possible approaches for building manufacturing. Or, at the very least, be a place where passionate people can talk about it.

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