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Lets automate DfMA: Part 1 - Working with ilke Homes

David Flynn

Part 1 - Lets fully automate the modular home build process

Our team have always been obsessed with automation and leveraging the underlying rules of construction. Most of the work we do is directly linked to businesses needing to streamline very complex processes and free up resources internally. When we got a chance to implement some of our tools and build new ones with a forward looking, driven business like ilke Homes, we jumped at the chance.

Building a modular home is fundamentally different to constructing one in the traditional way. Visiting ilke Homes for a tour of the factory, just before the start of the pandemic, we asked the crew numerous questions and had many of our preconceived notions dashed.

At matterlab we mainly deal in 0s and 1s, lines of code, rigorously researched user stories and mock-ups. Alongside that, many of us come from architecture or engineering, so we have a healthy respect for construction in its many forms. What we didn’t possess before the eye-opening visit was an appreciation for how complex it is to build a home in a factory and how rigorous the quality control is.

From metrics to plasterboard

We naively arrived expecting robots, a Nissan-like assembly line and people in lab coats. What we got was a mix of traditional construction intertwined with advanced processes and systems. The team consisted of people with a broad variety of skill sets, some clear to us as designers, some not so much due to the manufacturing abilities.

Ilke Homes were undertaking the mammoth task of updating their homes, their methods and their vision. matterlab and our technology were there to support the transition.

Initially we spent time with the design team, who used a few different tools much as you would expect: Autodesk Revit and Inventor, obscure(to an architect) machining technology, ERP systems, inventory and schedule tracking and planning. All of these systems were interconnected and dependant on each other, yet at the same time siloed in their separate workflows.

'Come on our journey'

Compared to the traditional processes we were used to, the main difference to us was the level of precision and depth of information needed for each house module. Many of our team have designed homes over the years, and we are used to getting a great outcome with fewer than 50 drawings.

For a modular home, however, that number barely covers the plasterboard. Everything needs to be articulated and the loose tolerances of the building site extracted from the process - we saw a huge amount of content describing everything in fine detail. Importantly, we also saw the opportunity to take up the challenge set by the ilke leadership: ‘Come on our journey, take what we do, improve it, reinvent it.’

So we did.

What followed was a year of many Teams meetings, intense collaboration and no small amount of learning. Covid decided we would need to do this remotely, with only cursory visits to site between lockdowns. Everyone stepped up and offered what they knew, no one insisted that ‘this is how it’s always been done’.

What did we actually do?

We found that the way information moved from multiple design tools to the factory floor had plenty of opportunities to improve. There was a huge wealth of manufacturing knowledge dispersed across the team, so we decided to do what we do best: codify it.

Example conversation:

‘Hi Mark, why are these panels 650mm apart in this corner?’
‘Well, that’s due to this MEP access requirement balanced against using the fewest cut boards.’
‘Okay cool…

Every single piece of material in a modular home has a purpose, a place, its own restrictions and relationships. A year ago, a team member would model all of the boarding, insulation, battens, fixings, openings and reveals (never mind the base steel frame, windows, doors, equipment, fixtures etc...). They did this using multiple design tools and relied on an interoperability workflow between software that simply didn’t exist to the level required.

But… so much of what is required has an underlying logic, a reason for being. We wrote 13 distinct workflow algorithms that would place everything automatically, relieving the team of considerable manual work to do what they do best: design and build new homes. We coupled that by producing all the required drawn output for the factory floor automatically, as well as the required machining files.

Now, the process was not without its major challenges. We learnt that building technology that essentially automates everything when a design is frozen… well it requires a frozen design. Obvious eh? Our goal was to instantly add the fMA bit to DfMA but the fluidity of design evolution, project demands and priorities shifting means we needed a more flexible approach.

In the next part, we will dive into the technology we built together and what it can do for ilke.

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