What is DfMA (and what does it mean for construction)?

Posted on: 13 March, 2024

Adopting the Design for Manufacture and Assembly approach can help construction firms maximise efficiency and ensure the future of the built environment is sustainable.

Construction is evolving. From off-site construction and prefabrication to the lean manufacturing methodology and new modern methods of construction (MMC), changes in governance and regulatory priorities have seen a shift in approach to one of efficiency, safety and sustainability.

When these changes are coupled with rapid technological innovation and, by 2031, the exit of 41% of the construction workforce, what you have is an industry in the middle of a significant period of transition.

To make it out the other side, it’s crucial that the construction industry adapts to a changing landscape, takes advantage of the latest technologies and maximises operational efficiency.

Along with adopting new methodologies and sustainable building methods, one new development that could offer significant benefits for the industry is DfMA.

What is Design for Manufacture and Assembly?

Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) is a design approach that aims to optimise the efficiency of manufacturing and assembly processes and ultimately cut costs, increase safety, and reduce turnaround times.

This approach has already been utilised in a variety of industries with an emphasis on manufacturing, from retail and consumer products to automotive, aerospace and even defence. As an industry involving the production of materials, structures and components – often on a mass scale – DfMA is equally applicable to construction, too.

What does DfMA mean for construction and the built environment?

In the context of the built environment, utilising DfMA means expanding the scope of design to the efficiency of production in each component. In this methodology, elements of a building are constructed in an off-site manufacturing environment as standardised or ‘modular’ designs, which are then assembled on-site.

How does DfMA work?

DfMA is the combination of two approaches – Design for Manufacturing (DfM) and Design for Assembly (DFA).

The objective of DfM is to minimise the complexity of manufacturing in the design phase and select natural, raw materials that are cost-effective. On the other hand, DfA focuses on the assembly time, and how this can be optimised through things like the number of components and stages in the process.

The 5 principles of DfMA

DfMA works to achieve 5 distinct principles:

  • Reduce the number of components
  • Ensure clarity
  • Make fabrication and assembly as easy as possible
  • Build tolerance into every component and structure
  • Reduce the need for adjustments

Why is DfMA important?

The goal of this methodology is ultimately to optimise building design, from production and manufacturing through to the assembly process. From the need to embrace sustainability and reduce energy consumption to the importance of ensuring safety for on-site workers and occupants, DfMA can provide a solution to a multitude of challenges facing the construction industry.

6 benefits of DfMA

There are a wide range of benefits of adopting this philosophy in construction, including:

1. Reduced construction time

DfMA can dramatically reduce the length of construction projects and prevent delays – a major painpoint for construction companies. Through the optimisation of component design, manufacturing and assembly stages (along with the adoption of modular design), the entire construction process and time to market can be accelerated without sacrificing quality.

2. Greater quality control

The traditional approach of constructing components and fashioning parts on-site has a number of disadvantages that DfMA can address. Whereas constructing on-site leaves components prone to poor weather and vandalism (which can hamper quality), building these off-site can ensure they’re better protected.

Similarly, design teams and prefabrication firms work to create controlled environments in off-site factories, leading to an overall improvement in quality.

3. Increased reliability

Along with greater quality control, the DfMA process works to improve the reliability of buildings and components by reducing the number of parts and the complexity of design. These both help to eliminate the number of things that can go wrong and the number of parts that can fail. Defects are a leading cause of delays, pushing back projects by up to 11%.

4. Reduced assembly cost

Amid the energy crisis, high material costs and the need for ensure the health and safety of its workers, construction needs to find ways to save money. DfMA works to identify opportunities to save costs from the design stage through to production and assembly, without compromising on quality or reliability.

5. Greater safety

Perhaps one of the most important advantages of adopting this design philosophy for construction firms is the reduction of health and safety risks. Removing construction activities with heavy machinery from the project site reduces the risk of injury that can be minimised in a controlled factory environment.

6. Improved sustainability (and reduced wastage)

DfMA’s focus on efficiency naturally leads to the improved sustainability of construction projects. A reduction in the number of parts means less processing and, subsequently, a reduction in energy usage and carbon emissions. Manufacturing in off-site environments also helps ensure wastage is minimised, as it won’t be mixed with waste from other processes that make it harder to sort and recycle effectively.

Learn more: Making a business case for sustainability: why now is the time to act

What’s more, this philosophy takes note of the latest sustainability standards throughout the entire construction process, meaning the sourcing of materials will lean on natural and environmentally-friendly choices.

The disadvantages of DfMA

This construction philosophy isn’t without its potential drawbacks, and it isn’t suitable for every construction asset or project.

As with both modular design and prefabrication, the necessity to transport components from their place of manufacture to the assembly location is perhaps the biggest stumbling block. This can present a variety of challenges, depending on the size and quantity of these components. For instance, your ability to transport large, ready-made components can be hindered by road widths and restrictions, and the costs of transporting these effectively could eat into any profits you’ve made from constructing them off-site in the first place.

Furthermore, realising the full benefits of this philosophy and its ability to improve ease of manufacturing and assembly will require time, investment and dedication in its inception.

Achieving an effective relationship between on-site and off-site construction and the design, production and assembly process demands expertise and effective coordination, along with effective software and technology training. While this methodology will deliver savings in the long-run, it will require a potentially significant initial investment.

Learn more: Technology will define the future of sustainability

Final thoughts

As with the many other emerging methods of construction in the built environment, DfMA isn’t a catch-all solution to our sector’s many challenges. While it offers a variety of benefits that can impact the entire building lifecycle, it simply isn’t suited to every construction project. However, it’s a fresh approach that every construction firm should assess, and its principles of improved efficiency, from design to manufacturing and assembly, should be emulated where possible.

Architectural technologists are the digital experts that bridge the gap between an aesthetic vision and a practical reality. If you want to be at the forefront of the built environment’s digital future, UCEM’s BSc (Hons) Architectural Design Technology will give you the technical expertise and literacy you need to become a valuable contributor to the sector.

Find out more: BSc (Hons) Architectural Design Technology – University College of Estate Management