Combining Offsite, Onsite and Nearsite Manufacturing in Construction
The current mix of onsite construction and offsite manufacturing has become a well-developed and efficient system of production, but the level of efficiency and productivity achievable is limited by the lack of significant economies of scale in a project-based industry. With 3D printing and digital fabrication this is no longer the case, and a new off/on/nearsite production mix that combines offsite mass production with onsite and nearsite manufacturing is possible. This introduces a new option in the organization of construction.
Can the industry greatly increase the share of components manufactured onsite or nearby, and do so while reducing embodied carbon and increasing choice and quality for clients? Could a significant share of components be manufactured onsite or nearby, using automated machinery to provide just-in-time delivery of structural elements as well as fixtures and fittings?
The Current System Combines Onsite Work and Offsite Manufacturing
Onsite construction is a project-based activity to deliver a specific building or structure in a specific location. It is a dense, highly regulated network of industries, utilising standardized materials and components to deliver buildings and structures using well understood processes. The system may not be elegant, but it is flexible, sophisticated and resilient, and coordinates many firms in a widely distributed value chain. Because this is an efficient system, any new technology will have to perform extremely well to have any significant effect on an industry as large and diverse as construction.
Mass production of standardized products justifies the capital investment in plant required for products where market demand is well known and stable, unlike the highly variable demand for buildings which rises and falls with the business cycle. However, while there are factory made structures and components, the number of standard buildings is limited and onsite production is organized around standard parts and materials. Manufacturing, in contrast, is organized around standardized products and continuous production runs.
The current system is therefore an efficient mix of onsite work and offsite production of prefabricated and manufactured components, with the combination varying depending on the type of project and location. The alternative that has been attempted many times with varying degrees of success is to replace onsite work with assemblies like panels, pods and modules that are manufactured offsite. However, the economies of scale of offsite manufacturing (OSM) are counterbalanced by the significant capital and transport costs involved, and OSM is not yet a viable alternative for many projects, at a time when improving the productivity of construction is a crucial element in addressing current issues in delivering housing and the energy transition.
Is there another alternative to OSM? What would a different way of organizing construction look like? What would be the effect of increasing the amount of work done onsite by manufacturing more, or most, of the structure and components on or around the construction site? How can that be done?
Onsite and Nearsite Manufacturing with Digital Fabrication
Over the last decade digital tools such as building information modelling (BIM), digital twins and design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) have become widely, although not universally, used in construction. While these have been applied to OSM, they have not solved the fundamental problems of limited economies of scale and large capital requirements. However, instead of reducing the amount of onsite work, these tools can be used to produce many of the components of a building anywhere, using new production technologies based on digital fabrication.
Digital fabrication turns design information into physical products using automated processes, providing the cutters, printers, millers, moulders, scanners and computers needed for designing, producing and reproducing objects. The tools include traditional subtractive ones for cutting, grinding or milling, but the focus has been on research into new methods of additive manufacturing using different methods of layering materials using 3D printers. The information needed to create a 3D blueprint is generated during design, and it is a relatively small step to move from a digital model to instructions for a 3D printer. Printing of metal, ceramic and plastic objects from online design databases in fabrication laboratories (fabs) has found industrial applications.
There are three methods for 3D printing: stereolithography, patented in 1986: fused deposition modelling, patented in 1989: and selective laser sintering, patented in 1992. It didn’t take long before research into 3D concrete printing (3DCP) began, focused on developing the equipment needed and the performance of the materials used. By 2022 the commercialisation of 3DCP was underway, with two types of systems available. One using a robotic arm to move the print head over a small area, intended to produce structural elements and precast components, the other a gantry system for printing large components, walls and structures. In November 2023 the Additive Manufacturing Marketplace has 44 concrete printing machines listed, ranging from desktop printers to large track mounted gantry systems that can print three or four story buildings.
Figure 1. Concrete printers
Once a BIM model of a project has been created it can be used to provide instructions for production of both the structural elements and other components of a building. When a concrete printer is used to build the walls it is an example of onsite production, but 3DCP can be used to make stairs, columns or other elements onsite as well. Producing components onsite from bags of mixture avoids the cost of handling and transport, and for large items avoids the load limits on roads and trucks. However, site space and access is often restricted, so setting up a fab nearby would still take advantage of the lower transport costs of bulk materials and a shorter distance for delivery while maintaining control over the production process. That is nearsite production. Local suppliers offering manufacturing on demand with print farms (factories with many machines) and many different printers that can produce large runs and specialised components is a nearsite form of production rather than OSM.
The potential of 3D printing in construction is not limited to concrete. The Additive Manufacturing Marketplace had 1,852 printers listed, and many of those printers could be used to produce fixtures and fittings for buildings. Suppliers offering manufacturing on demand with print farms for local production of building components might include the established manufacturers with specialized fabs producing metal, plastic and ceramic finishes, fixtures and fittings. A modular fab in a container customised for construction, or even a specific construction project, can be set up onsite to produce components as the schedule requires. Larger sites might need a fleet of fabs. Restorations and repairs can be done with replacement parts made onsite from scans of the original.
This does not suggest the end of mass production of all standardized components, economies of scale are the economic equivalent of gravity, but onsite and nearsite manufacturing using digital fabrication does not have to achieve the same economies of scale needed for mass production. The price of a mass-produced item includes its packing, storage, transport and delivery, costs that local just-in-time production avoids while providing more control over the supply chain. Then there are the potential economies of scope from integrated design-production-installation processes, which could be provided through platforms developed by companies like PT Blink and Project Frog, or the UK Product Platform.
The view here is that, over the next decades, the diffusion and spread of new production technologies will deeply affect how construction delivers buildings and structures. The options available between onsite, nearsite and offsite production will broaden considerably as 3D printing and digital fabrication capabilities increase, and the choice will be determined by the economies of scale and installed cost of local versus offsite manufacturing. The tradeoff between the cost, time and quality of the current onsite/offsite production mix and a new off/on/nearsite production mix will vary greatly across locations and projects, so this new way of organizing construction will coexist with the current system for many decades to come.
Figure 2. Print farms
The combining of robotic and automated machinery with 3D printing of parts will open up further possibilities. Site processes can be structured around components and modules designed to be assembled in a particular way, and machines to assemble those components and modules can be fabricated for that purpose. The FBR bricklaying machine below is an example of this, designed to use custom made blocks larger than conventional bricks. Another is the RoBIM robot making wall panels from prefabricated components.
Designing an automated production process that includes the machines and equipment needed to move and install parts produced by printers and robots puts digital fabrication at the core of an integrated system of design, manufacturing and assembly. This can work as well in construction as in any other industry.
Figure 3. Construction automation
Production technologies based on digital twins link localised digital fabrication with online design databases and, as well as concrete, materials like steel, ceramic and plastic can be used to make components and fittings. The robotic and automated machinery and equipment being developed for construction is also based on digital twins, as are the various types of drones used to layout and monitor construction sites.
Combining Offsite, Onsite and Nearsite Manufacturing
The combination of digital twins and digital fabrication will be transformational if it significantly alters existing economies of scale in the industry. Digital fabrication is a technology whose use has a high probability of becoming ubiquitous as the cost of fabs falls and the supply chain of raw materials continues to develop. Advances in automation and mechanization have the potential to significantly increase onsite and nearsite production in construction, using 3D printers to make and finish both structural elements and a wide range of fixtures and fittings.
This introduces a new option in the organization of production for delivery of buildings and structures. The current choice between onsite work and offsite manufacturing is a well-developed and efficient system, but the level of efficiency and productivity achievable is limited by the lack of significant economies of scale in a project-based industry. With digital fabrication this is no longer the case, and a new production mix that combines onsite and nearsite manufacturing with onsite construction work is now possible.
Table 1. Dimensions of development for Construction 4.0
Dimensions of development
Construction and the fourth industrial revolution
Production of components and materials
AI monitors compliance with building standards and codes. Generative design used for selection of components and modules from online design libraries, both open-source and private. Platforms integrate design and production with voice-controlled 3D models of buildings and components. Developments in digital fabrication, design software and molecular engineering allow a range of new production technologies. Economies of scale for nearsite and onsite versus offsite production determine what, where and when components are produced.
Mechanization and automation of tasks
Site workers have exoskeletons and smart helmets available. Heavy machinery and equipment is operated remotely, often with some autonomy. Many tasks can be done by teams of robots. Assemblers can be designed and fabricated to install components and modules, which can be designed to be handled by those assemblers.
Organization of projects
Cloud based platforms integrate delivery of the physical project with its digital twin, with real-time data and monitoring of activities. Standardised, outsourced cloud-based business processes used. Contractors become more vertically integrated and focus on integration, managing OSM, nearsite and onsite production. As built digital twins required by clients.