What is Platform Design for Manufacture and Assembly?

by John Millar | November 10, 2022 |  6 min read

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In 1943, IKEA changed furniture design forever. Arriving quietly but then expanding globally at a formidable rate. This distinctively Swedish approach to furniture had at its heart the core values of sustainability, lean thinking and modernist simplicity, with value to the end user the driving factor. The finer operational and logistical details laboured over at every stage of the design process to optimise the product as far as practicably possible.

As part of the development process, opportunities to add value, maximise utility, reduce environmental impact and continuously improve – all whilst maintaining a stylistic sensibility that has come to be its signature – were exploited to the maximum degree at every link of the value chain. The success of this approach over the years needs not to be described; IKEA’s well-established status as one of the world’s leading retailers speaks confidently for itself.

Those involved in the built environment will find here some shared ambitions and much to admire in the quick and effective way in which these were taken from rhetoric to reality. The key question for us then becomes one of how such an approach might be replicated in the design and delivery of our buildings and infrastructure.

The construction industry, in keeping with the tradition of looking to other industries for inspiration, has asked itself the same question and now has its answer. The resultant Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) driven approach that has steadily been gaining in traction in recent years has come to be known as Platform Design for Manufacture and Assembly (P-DfMA) – an adaptation of the well understood DfMA ethos for built assets.

This concept can be summarised as simply the adoption of a ‘kit of parts’ approach towards design, whereby buildings and infrastructure – particularly those in public ownership where value is key – are designed as varying configurations of a pre-defined and standardised set of components and systems, which typically fall into the categories outlined by the UK’s Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) in their MMC Definition Framework.

In adopting this approach, projects benefit from economy of scale, minimised waste and optimised logistics; the same strategy that has allowed IKEA to keep its costs and quality consistent and maintain its longevity and sustainability over the eight decades it has been in business.

But how does it work in practice?

Firstly, P-DfMA is dependent on a well integrated design team and supply chain – ideally with an established track record in delivering modern methods of construction – supported by a robust and well considered implementation of building information modelling (BIM) technology and methodology (the role of the information manager has arguably never been more critical).

The core members of the design team will be as varied as the number of specialist systems / components to be assembled and installed; thus, coordination throughout the project could be argued to be of an even greater importance than usual to ensure that – like with the flatpack – the right components are supplied for the right purpose and come together in the right way at the right time.

Once the delivery team has been assembled and the project’s bespoke MMC strategy decided upon, the components and systems to be used as the building blocks for the design can be digitally modelled, federated and computationally optioneered in order to optimise the design solution against any number of key performance indicators (KPIs). These processes can both draw from and contribute to a digital asset library which, over time, can be both refined and expanded upon to create further efficiencies in design and construction. Continuously improving from project to project to support a culture of standardised ‘best practice’ in platform design and project delivery

When the design solution has been finalised, construction can begin. At this point, the process gives way to slightly more familiar territory; the physical assembly of the individual units that comprise the built asset as a whole, which can include any number of 2D / 3D structural or non-structural systems and prefabricated MEP cassettes, in addition to the implementation of modern techniques which look to reduce labour and resource consumption whilst improving productivity and safety.

The specification and integration of each of these MMC categories on their own are not new and the industry has had much experience in working with each of these over the years, however, the scale of implementation, variety of unit types and interfaces and degree of integration (throughout the whole of the design process) mark the difference in P-DfMA projects.

Although the initial complexity of this may be daunting at first, this will be counter balanced over time by the increasing level of familiarity with the standardised components/systems in use and repeatable processes around their implementation; this is where much of the long-term value of the methodology is generated.

Moreover, the strong, digital backbone of the project that is formed by robust information management processes and the effective leveraging of technology supports site personnel, with remote access to live and reliable information (via the project’s Common Data Environment). Therefore reducing uncertainty whilst immersive technologies such as virtual/augmented reality (VR / AR) can be employed to aid understanding of the assembly process

With its logical approach and all of the benefits to be seized, there is much potential for P-DfMA to bring about a paradigm shift in the way in which we design and build for the public sector (and beyond). It offers a chance to not only enhance the quality of our buildings and the overall success of their delivery whilst reducing the burden on our planet, but also change the way in which industry professionals collaborate to deliver the built environment.

In implementing P-DfMA, architects and designers can look ahead to the fresh challenge of innovation within tight bounds – doing more with less – and the computational and environmental advantages this mode of design brings, whilst suppliers can look ahead to greatly reducing the gap in design involvement and digital competence / capability that currently exists between those who supply and those who design, becoming a far more integrated member of the design team in the process.

Contractors, meanwhile, will find much to appreciate in its leaner programmes, more predictable construction sequencing and reduced reliance on bespoke information and specialist skillsets onsite, whilst the general public will enjoy a more dependable built environment, with its buildings and infrastructure having been designed and constructed quicker, better and at less of a cost.

Although still in its early stages, what P-DfMA represents is the next step in a long journey of industry wide reflection and improvement that has spanned decades. With all there is to gain, it is a step forward that we should not hesitate to take.

BIM Academy offers specialist consultancy in the areas of P-DfMA, MMC and Digital. If P-DfMA is something that you think could add value to your project, please do contact John to discuss this further at [email protected].