What if your HDB flats and office buildings were built like Ikea furniture – would it be better, cheaper, faster?, Singapore News

Think about the construction of HDB flats and the image of sweat-drenched workers toiling under the blistering heat would probably spring to mind.

These days, with the initiatives at Soilbuild Construction Group, the building blocks of ‘magic’ can take place off-site in a controlled environment instead.

In an interview with AsiaOne at the company’s Integrated Construction and Prefabrication Hub (ICPH) recently, Soilbuild’s engineer Lee Kong Jian shares that the manufacturing facility uses a high degree of mechanisation and automation to produce components – such as walls, columns and floor slabs – which make up our homes and offices.

Those components can then be later assembled into 3D structures on-site like “Ikea furniture”, explains Lee’s colleague Daryl Chew.

Chew adds: “Imagine the Ikea products that we buy off the shelves, we normally take home the segmented pieces and assemble them using their connection systems. That is exactly what we are trying to do in the construction industry.”

Where the ‘magic’ happens

So what kind of work is done at the two-hectare (equivalent to the size of five football fields) large ICPH?

Simply put, the manufacturing of “selected precast components”.

During a tour of the ICPH, Lee, who has been in the company for over five years, says that the first floor of the facility is where manufacturing comes alive.

“First, everything that’s manufactured in the ICPH is based on the Building Information Modeling (BIM), which contains key information such as the size, the amount of steel reinforcement, and the amount of concrete that needs to be in the final product,” he explains.

“The data will then be planned by a production engineer, and the master computer will pass all this information to the various machines in the ICPH for production.”

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One key piece of machinery used is the shuttering robot. It works to place shutters, which act as a mold to hold the concrete, that will be used to produce a component. “Just like how a cake pan holds batter in place,” Lee adds.

At the same time, a highly customized mesh is also produced with their automated mesh welding machine and the bending machine – a machinery that’s only available locally in Soilbuild’s ICPH. The mesh is then fit into the shutters to form panels.

After the panels of steel are inspected, they will be concreted then sent into a curling chamber before a 2D component is all done.

All these machines work together to reduce the need for manual labor, according to the 30-year-old engineer.

“Shorter construction period, improved workmanship, reduced dependency on labor”

The ICPH is an example of how Soilbuild is adopting Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) principles, says Chew.

DfMA in construction comprises various technologies and methodologies that facilitates offsite fabrication. These include unique prefabricated components (like walls, columns and floor slabs) and fully integrated assemblies (such as Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction) across the various work disciplines.

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But enough talk how DfMA can help build HDB flats and office buildings like an Ikea furniture. Is it really better, cheaper and faster?

“[DfMA] results in shorter construction period, improved workmanship and reduced dependency on labor,” says Chew, who is also the Innovation and Sustainability Lead at Soilbuild.

This method of construction is used in Soilbuild’s ongoing residential project, Verticus – a freehold condominium in Balestier.

ALSO READ: Life at the city fringe: I spent a day at Balestier and found plenty of hidden gems

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Besides residential spaces, Soilbuild also fabricates precast components to support industrial projects, such as data centres, logistics warehouses and pharmaceutical factories, according to Chew.

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Shining a spotlight on local talents

Given the potential and bright future of DfMA, attracting more local talents is key to developing resilience in the construction industry, Chew says.

To do that, Soilbuild offers career opportunities to graduates from various academic institutions including polytechnics, Institute of Technical Education (ITE) colleges and universities, and training programs for existing employees to upskill.

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After all, the ICPH requires people with varying degrees of skill sets – from supervising, to planning, and project management – to manufacture selected precast components in a controlled and automated environment.

“We believe in sustainable design, manufacturing and construction to meet the demands of tomorrow. And in doing so, develop a sustainable local workforce,” Chew says.

A greener future for the next generation

With buildings generating nearly 40 per cent of global carbon emissions, the issue of climate change is becoming more prevalent than ever, Chew.

“We see this issue (climate change) as a potential opportunity to spur innovation for a cleaner and brighter future,” the 29-year-old sustainability lead says, adding that Soilbuild is collaborating with various institutions and industry partners to jointly develop low- carbon technologies for their prefabrication business.

There are also plans for Soilbuild to expand their research and development initiatives, such as building green and sustainable facilities that are in line with the Singapore Green Plan 2030according to Chew.

Describing how these future facilities will be even more energy efficient, he says: “Being an end-to-end built environment solution provider, Soilbuild is well-poised to tap on these opportunities.

“[We] will [also] continue to embrace the ongoing transformational journey and beyond.”

This article is brought to you in partnership with Soilbuild Construction Group Ltd.

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chingshijie@asiaone.com