Automation in offsite construction

If you’re part of the construction industry, you’ve probably already heard about Building Information Modelling (BIM) and how it challenges the traditional approach to building. This smart, 3D model-based method works by creating a “digital twin” of a structure, enabling:

  • Better collaboration among stakeholders
  • More controlled and streamlined value chains
  • Improved results through data-driven decision-making

In essence, BIM has the potential to completely revolutionize the way we build, making the process more efficient, streamlined, cost-effective, agile and sustainable. With benefits like that, you might ask yourself: Why isn’t BIM a more prevalent feature in the construction industry?

Short answer: A lack of automation.

A fully realized BIM vision requires a strong digital foundation, something that is yet missing in traditional construction, except for one area: Offsite construction (OSC). Although OSC is still a relatively small part of the greater construction ecosystem and struggles with its own automation challenges, new technologies, favorable regulations, and forward-thinking companies (e.g. Baufritz, Rubner haus, Entekra, BoKlok) and projects like Build-in-Wood are rapidly turning it into a disruptive force.

©Rubner haus: Pyramidenkogel

With a projected worth of over $235 B by 2030 and growing popularity in countries like China, Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands, there is little doubt this promising new segment is about to skyrocket - laying the digital foundation needed for BIM to truly reach its potential.

Let’s take a closer look at the industry dynamics and approaches (e.g. Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA)) that are boosting the use of automated OSC and driving the emergence of new solutions - making the BIM vision a reality.

©Entekra: Fully Integrated Offsite Solutions®

Automation in the offsite construction industry (OSC)

Offsite construction (aka prefabricated, modular, pre-engineered) makes it possible to design, plan and pre-make different elements of a structure in a controlled factory setting instead of onsite. The different elements are then brought to the construction site for rapid assembly (think of a LEGO system).

The benefits of OSC have been widely documented and include increased productivity, control, speed, safety, efficiency and decreased waste. In fact, studies have revealed that the OSC method can produce savings anywhere from 30 to 50% compared to conventional construction.

Automation is a key part of the process, which is often aided by computers, robots and machines that can be programmed to execute various repetitive tasks. Some of the automated processes include:

  • Manufacturing building components
  • The assembling of those components
  • The processes that enable manufacturing and assembly

Making these processes more computer-controlled and automated reduces the chance of human error, increases worker safety and results in better overall quality.

©Baufritz: Machine based automation in the manufacturing stage

Barriers to automation in offsite construction (OSC)

Despite its high potential and the growing industry interest in OSC, its widespread use has been hindered due to the challenges associated with making the process fully automated. Some of these challenges include:

The investment

Getting started with OSC is an expensive process, especially for companies that aim to be fully automated. Some of these costs include:

  • Setting up the factory
  • Buying the necessary machinery
  • Workers with higher skills (higher salaries)
  • Operation, maintenance and depreciation costs

Together these factors can really add up, forcing companies to think twice before making the investment.  

The complexity of the process

Getting the most out of the OSC method involves streamlining numerous processes and a high level of collaboration. Everything from design, to manufacturing, to assembly has to be carefully planned and precise. Small errors can be costly, create serious delays and impede the entire process.  

The need for skilled labor

Automated OSC requires trained, meticulous workers that are comfortable with technology and have the know-how to keep the operation running smoothly. This makes them more expensive and harder to find.

©Entekra: Skilled labor based automation in the manufacturing stage

A lack of education and training

OSC requires a variety of skills in areas like digital design, offsite manufacturing, logistics, site management and systems integration. Many of the people in the industry lack training and experience in these areas. Upskilling will be an essential part of the process.

Regulatory requirements

Although regulations are becoming more favorable for OSC, driven by increased demand for cost-effectiveness and sustainability (e.g. Japan, the UK, etc.), they can still be a barrier in some countries.  

Drivers for automation in offsite construction (OSC)

We’ve already touched on some of the benefits that are helping to drive automated OSC (e.g. increased sustainability, higher cost-efficiency, speed and more overall quality). Here are two additional drivers that are worth mentioning:

The possibility for scale

Having a fully automated OSC set-up makes it possible to take on large scale development projects. The more continuous and repetitive the project, the higher your return on investment can be, enabling you to offset the costs associated with machinery, transportation and skilled labor.    

Room for endless innovation

The benefits that OSC brings to the table can be significantly enhanced when combined with robotics, AI and other capabilities. Among these, BIM is one of the most promising, providing a strong digital foundation and facilitating many of the benefits and opportunities that come with OSC. In fact, a 2012 study by Goulding et al. argues that the biggest growth in construction productivity will stem from automated offsite activities assisted by BIM.  

The trouble is that despite all the industry interest, there is still a big gap between the fully realized BIM vision and the reality construction companies face today. Let’s take a closer look at how the BIM vision differs from the BIM reality.  

BIM Vision vs BIM reality

To understand how the BIM vision differs from the BIM reality, you first have to understand the different BIM levels of maturity, which go from level 0 to level 3:

©United BIM: BIM Levels Explained
BIM Levels

BIM level 3 represents the fully realized BIM vision, while for many construction companies, the reality is still represented by BIM level 1 or 2.  

While the use of BIM certainly has its advantages at any level, the lack of a digitally integrated system often leaves room for error. For example, BIM level 1 isn’t fully integrated, which leads to communication challenges among stakeholders, e.g.:

  • Iterations might not be fully visible or communicated to the entire team.
  • Late decisions or changes might not be possible once the process is underway.
  • Even small deviations from the design plan can lead to huge challenges later on.

Although BIM level 2 provides a higher degree of integration, plus the ability to forecast timing and budgets accurately, these capabilities only work if there is a strong 3D BIM (i.e. shared information model) base.  

It all boils down to one inevitable conclusion: To make the BIM vision a reality, we’ll have to start adopting a much higher level of digital integration in our everyday construction practices. OSC is helping to drive the emergence of practical BIM solutions to meet the rising need for:

  • Precise specifications
  • Industrialized manufacturing
  • Seamless onsite assembly

Now that we’ve touched on some of the ways OSC is helping BIM reach its true potential, let’s take a look at another approach that brings BIM and OSC together - Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA).

What is Design for Manufacture and Assembly?

Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA)

Design for Manufacture and Assembly aka, DfMA, is a design approach that focuses on making the manufacturing and assembly stages of the construction process less complicated and more efficient. It takes OSC to the next level by prioritizing:

  • Ease of manufacturing for a structure’s different parts
  • Simplified assembly processes to create the final product

Structures that are designed using this approach can maximize the benefits of OSC, including reduced building time, decreased costs, better quality, higher productivity and improved overall efficiency. DfMA combines two methodologies:

Design for Manufacture (DFM)

DFM focuses on designing with “ease of manufacturing” in mind. It considers each part that goes into the final product and finds the most efficient and cost-effective way to manufacture it. The goal is to minimize complexity during the manufacturing process.

Design for Assembly (DFA)

DFA focuses on designing with “ease of assembly” in mind. The goal is to make the assembly process simpler (e.g. minimizing the number of assembly operations, parts, steps, etc.) and reduce product assembly costs.

When you add DfMA to BIM powered OSC, the possibilities are endless, with the benefits of BIM helping to bridge the gaps, demands and requirements of OSC. Let’s take a look at what this would entail for the different DfMA stages.

The stages of DfMA

Different stages and their functions within DfMA

The design stage

Profiles involved: Architects, designers and engineers.

When it comes to Offsite and DfMA, accuracy is an essential part of the process - and it all starts during the design stage. During this stage, the team (usually led by an architect or engineer) creates a detailed digital plan for all the components that go into the final structure.

Digital designs and 3D modelling (yes, this is BIM) make it possible to test the levels of precision needed between components within a digital environment. This way, the team can validate that the manufacturing and assembly process will be possible later on.  

Errors in this stage often result in extensive rework and even re-fabrication, offsetting many of the original benefits of OSC. Accurate 3D modelling allows design issues to be identified and solved within a digital environment rather than onsite. This, in turn, allows for a smoother process with less need for corrections and less waste.

Design platforms like AutoCAD® and Revit® are a big part of the DfMA design process, with a myriad of toolsets available to make designs more detailed and accurate than ever. The hsbDesign platform, which is available for both AutoCAD® and Revit®, is another highly valuable asset that enables DfMA within these platforms:

  • Eliminating unwanted repetitions associated with 2D and 3D design.
  • Serving as a base platform for other hsbDesign toolsets.
  • Adding clarity, detail and engagement to the design process.

The manufacture stage

Profiles involved: Manufacturers, engineers, factory workers, CNC machine specialists.

In this stage, the different parts of a structure are made following the specs provided during the design stage. During this stage, digital modelling makes it easier to visualize the design, its connections and how the parts fit together, resulting in a more efficient fabrication process. BIM software and CNC machinery are used to help ensure precision and accuracy go into every part of the final structure, making the assembly stage as smooth as possible.  

Platforms like GranIT and Offsight can help by solving communication issues, addressing timing challenges, adding quality and making the process more trackable. The hsbMake platform is another valuable asset during this phase, reducing the risk of errors and ensuring the right information is delivered to the right people at the right time:

  • Plan production from start to finish.
  • Find any bottlenecks in the workflow.
  • Keep projects running on schedule.
  • Alert other stakeholders about any deviations.
  • Adjust the input on sawing machines.
  • Use other hsbMake toolsets.

The assembly stage

Profiles involved: Builders, contractors, construction specialists.

This is the stage where all the parts are brought to the site to be “assembled” into the final structure. During this stage, BIM 3D models can be used to provide teams with a “digital rehearsal” showing how the assembly should go (e.g. truck loading/unloading, crane positions, construction sequences, temporary structures, etc.).

Some of the platforms being used in this capacity include Autodesk Construction Cloud and Aconex. hsbShare is another useful platform that helps streamline and optimize this part of your offsite construction process:

  • Unifying all project data into a digital twin cloud platform.
  • Providing a paperless offsite experience.
  • Optimizing information flow and reducing mistakes.
  • Providing a 3D view with the capability to rotate, zoom, search and more.
  • Enabling the use of other hsbShare toolsets.

The benefits of BIM for DfMA

Benefits of BIM

Here are just a few of the main benefits of adopting BIM for DfMA:

Higher levels of quality and precision

BIM 3D modelling capabilities enable different structure components to be built digitally before they’re actually built in the factory. This extra step provides proper quality assurance and reduces the chance for errors, delays, rework or extra unforeseen costs.

Reduced costs

BIM brings a higher level of efficiency to the design, manufacturing and assembly stages, helping to streamline the entire process and reducing costs along the way.  


BIM capabilities can be used to design different DfMA components, allowing for an overlap in factory and onsite activities. This can significantly increase the speed of the project.

Higher safety levels for workers

BIM models can be used to test different components on matters of site safety both during manufacturing in the factory and during assembly onsite - providing a higher level of worker safety. Automating the manufacturing process and enabling it to take place in a controlled factory environment also reduces the number of safety breaches.

Sustainability and less waste

DfMA already puts a lot of emphasis on the efficient and simplified use of materials during the design stage. When you add BIM to the mix, the process gets even more precise, resulting in less wasted materials.

BIM software capabilities also enable a greater degree of automation, making it easier to track and reduce a project’s carbon footprint.

More efficient use of labor

BIM enables teams to make highly detailed plans and schedules. This allows for the more efficient use of available human resources.

Increased productivity

BIM capabilities increase collaboration and make information exchanges quick and easy. This helps streamline the entire process from design to assembly, heightening the level of productivity.

hsbcad’s contribution to the BIM vision

Despite some of the challenges keeping numerous construction companies worldwide from achieving the full BIM vision - the concept is already a reality. At hsbcad, we’ve spent the last 20+ years building solutions to help make it possible.  

hsbcad design solutions

Our hsbDesign platform works with both Revit® and AutoCAD® software to add detailing power, increase automation and centralize vital information, leading to a reduction in errors and more streamlined processes. We’ve also created a variety of toolsets that give the hsbDesign platform added capabilities so users can tackle projects faster and with a higher level of detail.

These tools help teams:

  • Design to prefab build capabilities
  • Create detailed prefab specifications
hsbcad's ability to design in detail for machining and fabrication

hsbcad manufacturing solutions

Our hsbMake platform was designed to provide the right data to the right people whenever they need it. It enables users to store designs, create new versions and track all production files related to that project. It facilitates the manufacturing process from start to finish enabling each step to be monitored and providing alerts when there’s a deviation from the plan. Best of all, it’s accessible anywhere, including automated CNC workstations and manual workstations. Additional toolsets are also available to take the production process to even greater heights.

These tools help teams:

  • Create precise detailing for any building technique
  • Conduct CNC machine steering
  • Run validations
  • Attain better production control
  • Combine multiple project timelines (i.e.project nesting)
Example of working shop drawings generated from a design detailed for manufacture

hsbcad assembly solutions

Our hsbShare platform was designed to unify all your project data into a cloud-based digital twin, accessible from anywhere by any stakeholder. The enhanced visual experience allows for 3D viewing with the ability to rotate, zoom, dimension, search and more. Additional tools include:

  • hsbLogistics which enables you to track the production and storage of packages in your offsite factory, using QR coding to monitor their locations right on your phone.
  • hsbStacking which enables you to efficiently stack different project parts (e.g. walls, floors, roofs, etc.), creating the precise positioning needed for transport or storage.

These tools help teams:

  • With stacking and logistics
  • Achieve smooth onsite assemblies (like Lego)
  • Manage projects more efficiently
  • Gain access to full details of “as-built” and “as-produced”

Each hsbcad software solution is designed to combine and work as a package to get you closer to that highly coveted BIM vision.

Example of hsbShare and its toolset: hsbStacking

The BIM vision realized

Although BIM isn’t part of the mainstream construction industry just yet, we’re quickly moving in that direction, prompted by sub-segments in the landscape like OSC and DfMA. The technologies and capabilities to make Level 3 BIM are already in place; it’s only a matter of seizing the opportunity.

Companies that adopt BIM will be leading a whole new era in construction, making it more transparent, collaborative, cost-effective, sustainable and efficient.

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Gill Gonnissen
Product Manager