Prefabrication is the practice of assembling components of a structure in a factory or other manufacturing site, and transporting complete assemblies or sub-assemblies to the construction site where the structure is to be located. The term is used to distinguish this process from the more conventional construction practice of transporting the basic materials to the construction site where all assembly is carried out.
The term prefabrication also applies to the manufacturing of things other than structures at a fixed site. It is frequently used when fabrication of a section of a machine or any movable structure is shifted from the main manufacturing site to another location, and the section is supplied assembled and ready to fit. It is not generally used to refer to electrical or electronic components of a machine, or mechanical parts such as pumps, gearboxes and compressors which are usually supplied as separate items, but to sections of the body of the machine which in the past were fabricated with the whole machine. Prefabricated parts of the body of the machine may be called 'sub-assemblies' to distinguish them from the other components.
Prefabrication is used in the manufacture of ships, aircraft and all kinds of vehicles and machines where sections previously assembled at the final point of manufacture are assembled elsewhere instead, before being delivered for final assembly.
The theory behind the method is that time and cost is saved if similar construction tasks can be grouped, and assembly line techniques can be employed in prefabrication at a location where skilled labour is available, while congestion at the assembly site, which wastes time, can be reduced. The method finds application particularly where the structure is composed of repeating units or forms, or where multiple copies of the same basic structure are being constructed. Prefabrication avoids the need to transport so many skilled workers to the construction site, and other restricting conditions such as a lack of power, lack of water, exposure to harsh weather or a hazardous environment are avoided. Against these advantages must be weighed the cost of transporting prefabricated sections and lifting them into position as they will usually be larger, more fragile and more difficult to handle than the materials and components of which they are made.
The most widely-used form of prefabrication in building and civil engineering is the use of prefabricated concrete and prefabricated steel sections in structures where a particular part or form is repeated many times. It can be difficult to construct the formwork required to mould concrete components on site, and delivering wet concrete to the site before it starts to set requires precise time management. Pouring concrete sections in a factory brings the advantages of being able to re-use moulds and the concrete can be mixed on the spot without having to be transported to and pumped wet on a congested construction site. Prefabricating steel sections reduces on-site cutting and welding costs as well as the associated hazards.
Prefabrication techniques are used in the construction of apartment blocks, and housing developments with repeated housing units. The quality of prefabricated housing units had increased to the point that they may not be distinguishable from traditionally-built units to those that live in them. The technique is also used in office blocks, warehouses and factory buildings. Prefabricated steel and glass sections are widely used for the exterior of large buildings.
Prefabrication saves engineering time on the construction site in civil engineering projects. This can be vital to the success of projects such as bridges and avalanche galleries, where weather conditions may only allow brief periods of construction. Additionally, small, commonly-used structures such as concrete pylons are in most cases prefabricated.
Radio towers for mobile phone and other services often consist of multiple prefabricated sections. Modern lattice towers and guyed masts are also commonly assembled of prefabricated elements.
Prefabrication has become widely used in the assembly of aircraft and spacecraft, with components such as wings and fuselage sections often being manufactured in different countries or states from the final assembly site.