Thursday, April 5, 2018

Robotics Will Fail to Win Over US Housing Industry

Robotics in many industries has now reached a tipping point where it is more economical to use a robot to do many jobs than the cheapest worker in a developing country.

Robotics should be making big inroads in construction but sadly they aren’t. The usual solution for industries facing labor shortages is to apply technology — re engineer their business processes so that a home can be built with less human labor. But the reality is that in the U.S at least, home construction seems to be remarkably resistant to technological improvements.

Did you know America built about the same number of housing units in 2016 as in 1992, but somehow required about 46 percent more people to do it? If any industry is ready for robotics it should be home construction.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for robotic acceptance is where the robots would be used. Over 90% of all construction in the US still occurs on the job site in all types of weather. How could computer controlled robots work in snow, rain or high wind conditions? Would they be able to go to a stack of lumber lying in a muddy jobsite, pick up a stick, measure and cut it, lay it on the deck and nail it to other sticks and build a wall on the job.

As long as the vast majority of homes and other construction occurs outside, robots will never be able to replace manual labor. Finding robots to replace skilled labor to do interior trim, plumbing and electrical is still the thing of dreams.

Automation and robotics will only be effective in a weather controlled environment building wall and floor panels as well as trusses. CNC cutters simply don’t work in the rain.

The home building industry is facing not only a manual labor shortage but a skilled one as well. With our country’s current 4.4% unemployment rate the government says that everyone that wants a job is working.

Robotics can possibly free up maybe 20% of all the manual jobs over the next 20 years but if builders and tract developers refuse to move their product offerings to at least being partially built inside a factory using robotics, there will be no savings in time, money or talent.

There is something unique about housing. Typically, home construction activity is custom work and it is difficult to gain economies of scale — or to automate processes — when every job, or close to every job, is unique.

That uniqueness will force the housing industry to remain robotic-proof for decades to come.

1 comment:

Randy P said...

Completely agree. The US has many panel and truss factories that have been serving the tract builders for decades. There have been some advances lately but they are still manual labor intensive.

Anyone that has walked the production of a modular home factory sees the same processes used in the same way as the site built home. Centralizing all the manual and skilled labor needed to build a home is a great process. Shipping it to the job and setting the house are areas where we could save money if we could figure out a more efficient way to do it.

The US is a capitalist country where individuality is respected. Most European countries tend to be more socialist in nature and people are raised to believe all should share in commonality. Hence most of the homes in their housing communities look similar.