Faster, Leaner, Modular

The pieces to the modular construction puzzle are finally fitting together, thanks to digital twin, 3D printing and other advanced tools.

In September of 2017, with a homelessness crisis looming in the city of Vancouver and throughout British Columbia, Premier John Horgan announced a plan to construct 2,000 modular housing units across the province over the next two years, at a cost of $291 million. Within five months, tenants from Vancouver began to occupy the first of these “microsuites,” which come with bathroom, kitchen, bed and living space. The plan calls for them to live there are on an interim basis, until a permanent solution is in place, at which point the 250- to 350-sq.-ft. microsuites can be dismantled, transported in pieces and reassembled at other sites where they are needed.modular construction

As aggressive as the B.C. plan for alleviating homelessness is, the quick turnaround from project announcement to move-in was possible because the modular housing manufacturer, Horizon North, its suppliers and other project participants could design, manufacture, deliver and assemble the units on a condensed schedule that would have been unthinkable before digital technologies made modular housing practical. The advent of technologies such as building information modeling (BIM) via a “digital twin” and distributed manufacturing using 3D printing are paving the way for new business models and building approaches such as modular construction to reach the mainstream, and for modular projects like those in B.C. to rise in record time.

Modular construction is a technique in which commercial and residential structures are manufactured mostly off-site under controlled factory conditions, in sections or modules, and then transported in pieces to their intended site, where they are constructed into a single integrated building. Modular structures use the same materials and are designed to the same codes and standards as conventionally built facilities, making them virtually indistinguishable from structures built using traditional construction methods. There are, however, key practical and economic distinctions that give modular construction an edge over traditional construction in certain environments and applications.

Cost and timeline certainty

Roughly 60 to 90 per cent of construction for a modular building occurs inside the factory, according to the Modular Building Institute (MBI). That helps avoid delays due to weather, trade/contractor/labour availability, accident damage, theft and other risks, which keeps costs and timelines on track. Manufacturing the modules to exact factory specifications also eliminates delays that are common in conventional builds, while potentially speeding the design, survey and compliance elements of a project.

modular construction
Courtesy of Modular Building Institute

Factory construction also shortens timelines. Modules can be constructed in a plant at the same time as site preparation and foundation work are occurring onsite. This reduces overall project time by an average of 30 to 50 per cent, according to MBI.

Product quality

In traditional construction approaches, factors such as weather conditions and the quality of onsite labour may diminish the overall quality of the finished product. Because the bulk of components for modular construction are produced in a controlled factory environment, they are much less susceptible quality risks. The factory environment also gives manufacturers opportunities to improve product consistency and overall process efficiency by automating certain production steps. What’s more, automation and the indoor construction environment may reduce the risk of accidents and related worker safety liabilities.

Collaboration and visibility throughout the supply chain

A new generation of digital construction project management platforms allow multiple participants access to a single version of “the truth” for a given project, where they are able to gain visibility into the individual project tasks for which they are responsible, and how they impact or may be impacted by the schedules and tasks of others. Such a platform can link the relevant parties — material suppliers, developer, contractors, even participating government agencies and officials — so not only can they share and view the specs for individual components, they also can use a digital supply chain management solution equipped with sensors to track materials, supply needs and the progress of various interdependent parts and components in real time during the manufacturing process. They then can use this information to inform and adjust production and construction workflow.

Project participants can plug into that same digital platform to access a cross-company masterplan and schedule, providing a framework for ensuring all parties are aware of critical milestones. Transparent sharing of cost and budget data makes it possible for project participants to work within the overall risk-management for the project, with the assurance that budgets can be inspected and approved by all parties. Issues and changes are identified, tracked, solved and well documented.

One structure that these collaborative tools make obsolete is the silo. Using a cloud-based, collaborative digital supply chain management platform allows the parties in a modular construction project to collect and share data from points along the supply chain and at the construction site. That’s in stark contrast to the highly siloed approach common to traditional construction projects.

Manufacturing insight

Manufacturers involved in modular construction have access to a concept known as “digital twin” that can shed valuable new light on the production process. Recently identified by Gartner as one of the top 10 tech trends in their 2018 Technology Trends report, digital twinning is the pairing of the virtual and physical worlds in which data from sensors, computers and equipment connected to the Internet of Things are used to build a virtual model of a process, product or service.

Data produced by a digital twin can help inform manufacturers of potential production and quality issues before they occur, while also helping them to uncover potential efficiency gains in the production process. In the context of modular construction, a digital twin can be used in BIM to develop design specs for an entire building, for individual modules and for the components of a module. A digital twin also can be developed for each individual module, and the various components of that module. Important data then can be attached to each element, giving parties insight into production schedules, quality-control metrics and other information that is key to keeping the manufacturing side of a modular project on schedule.

Responsiveness to customer demands

Manufacturers in the modular space need the ability to design and build products to meet the needs of, and respond to input from, their customers. Manufacturers can gain this customized and collaborative manufacturing capability using some of the aforementioned digital tools. They can also gain it with technology such as 3D printing. When connected via a digital manufacturing platform, an OEM, a customer, a 3D printing service provider, a material provider and other parties can collaborate in the production of a part for a modular housing project.

Modular construction represents fertile ground for distributed manufacturing using 3D printing, allowing manufacturing and supply networks to take advantage of cost-effective local production, customization and rapid delivery. Builders are already doing so, as illustrated by a recent project involving Russia-based Apis Cor (company slogan: “We print buildings”), where the basic components of a 400-sq.-ft. house were printed in about a day, using only one machine. Built to last 175 years, the house is but one example of how large-scale 3D printing is poised to move into the construction mainstream.

Just-in-time production, delivery and deployment

Manufacturers involved in a modular construction project can use digital tools to gather data that lets them know exactly how much they need to produce of a given component or module, and when a site is ready to take delivery of that component or module in preparation for onsite construction. These same tools can inform manufacturers of exactly which materials they need for production, how much of it they need, and where they can source it most cost-effectively. This helps suppliers throughout the chain manage stock levels, transportation and distribution requirements more efficiently.

This lean approach to manufacturing also enables companies to respond when there’s a pressing need for modular construction products, such as to provide temporary housing to people impacted by a natural disaster, for example. Modules can be transported to a site where they are needed, then quickly and easily assembled.

And let’s not overlook the broader reputational ramifications. Instead of people cursing developers, builders and construction companies for the long-term disruptions their projects tend to cause, people will react much more favorably when projects of the type that once took years to complete now take a matter of weeks.


Modular construction is a lean process. Because modules are manufactured to exacting specifications, there’s less waste. Modular construction also creates new opportunities to use recycled materials. Then there are the community environmental benefits. Because the bulk of fabrication occurs remotely, actual construction becomes significantly less disruptive in terms of noise, emissions from construction equipment, and traffic flow around a site. Those benefits have prompted policymakers in places like Singapore to require that contractors incorporate modular elements prepared offsite into their project bids.

It’s another example of how modular construction, driven by digital solutions, is bringing the abstract concept of Industry 4.0 to life around the world. In this case, the whole certainly is greater than the sum of its parts.

Folkert Haag is the global lead for building materials industries at SAP, and is part of the solution management team of the mill products and mining industry unit.

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