One of the sharpest pains borne by the construction industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the immense labour crunch, as building firms were forced to send back foreign workers or see their labour costs rise dramatically due to the return of the foreign worker levy, payments for insurance, swab tests, and other safety measures. While the Singapore Government is expected to stimulate activity in the sector this year, this fundamental labour constraint has meant that bottom lines have suffered, timelines have been skewed, and many firms have even rejected projects.
There is no escaping the fact that construction activity, stimulated by the government or not, requires the employment of labour on- and off-site. But the government, as well as local firms, have begun taking steps to reduce the local industry’s dependence on foreign workers and reduce costs while boosting productivity to meet the challenge head-on.
One such step, long-espoused by the government but one that more firms are finally waking up to, is Design for Manufacturing and Assembly, or DfMA for short. DfMA is an engineering methodology composed of two components: the first is Design for Manufacturing, which aims to make the production of building components and segments easier; the second is Design for Assembly, which aims to make the on-site installation of prefabricated segments easier. Put together, DfMA is a system that optimises the creation of structural components off-site and then makes the on-site setting up of these components seamless as well. Billed as having saved “billions of dollars” of costs since its inception in 1983, DfMA has been championed by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) and Ministry of National Development (MND) for many years, with adoption rates steadily, but slowly, inching upwards in Singapore.
DfMA helps resolve several labour choke points in a labour-crunched environment by allowing firms to source more standard and easier-to-install elements of their project that require less labour-intensive use of workers. Furthermore, it could open the door to more local workers being used instead since the training for such work can be formulated much more easily than for general construction work. Both of these advantages will push firms to adopt DfMA in the recovery from COVID-19 as labour markets continue to be tight and countries cautious about opening up to mass influxes of foreign labour.
In a speech to Parliament on March 04 2021, Minister of State Tan Kiat How focused on DfMA as a substantial and important focus of the government in the development of the Growth and Transformation Scheme (GTS) and Construction Industry Transformation Map (ITM). He said, “DfMA allows building components to be fabricated off-site in automated facilities, and subsequently assembled on-site. This raises productivity, improves workmanship, and reduces dis-amenities to residents near construction sites. DfMA adoption has doubled over the last three years, from 19% in 2017 to 39% in 2020.” DfMA will remain a priority for the government and forward-looking firms in the industry. Equipping one’s firm with DfMA practices may in fact be the line between winding up and flourishing as the construction industry radically transforms over the next few years.