Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Can Robotics Change the Modular Housing Industry?

At the 2017 IBS in Orlanda, FL I sat down with a expert on modular housing in the US and talked about robotic’s future in modular housing.

He explained there are 5 distinct regions in the US when it comes to residential modular production.

First is the Northeast where custom design wins the day and where modular can account for up to 18% of all new single family resident (SFR) starts. This region is heavily populated with modular factories that build homes from Architects and Design/Build modular home builders. It seems that no two homes are identical and factory plan books just gather dust on the builder’s shelf.

The next big region for modular SFR construction is the Midwest where most of the homes are built from factory plan books and are either two module ranch or cape cod style homes with an unfinished second floor. The Midwest factory also builds a lot of HUD manufactured homes on the same production lines as their IRC modular homes.

The Southeast is typically a HUD product area with a sprinkling of custom modular factories. Modular is not a preferred type of home in that region and has very little impact on new house starts. The Southwest is almost exclusively HUD manufactured homes and trying to introduce custom IRC modular homes has failed in almost every attempt.

The West Coast is a region where custom modular is welcomed but few factories are available to service it. This is where panelized factories turn out “Prefab”wall and trusses like Entekra and Katerra.

There are modular factories cranking out modules like Factory os in California but they mostly address the ‘cookie cutter’ affordable housing market being content to slam out small minimalistic living spaces for Google, Yahoo and Amazon’s employees who can’t afford to actually build an SFR.

Robots only work effectively in regions where the same couple of housing plans are built over and over. Look for robotics to make big headways into 4 of the 5 modular regions over the next couple of years.

If the existing factories in those regions don’t begin seriously looking at the benefits of automated building systems including robotics someone from outside the US will.

The West Coast and the Midwest will be the first to see both robotics and foreign modular manufacturing plants. China not only can rapidly deploy an army of people to scout out sites, build new facilities, pay locals higher wages but they will bring their automation and robotics with them along with financing to help developers build more and more affordable housing, that is needed desperately especially in the West Coast.

So where does that leave the Northeast and it’s need for help solving the labor shortage? It leaves them with only a few steps in the production that can be helped with automation.

There is an obvious need in framing which would allow the factories to move their framing workers into other places in the production line like window and door installation, finish carpentry and insulation. Good deal for the factory’s need for labor but it is a short term solution at best as the factory’s workforce is aging quickly and fewer than ever young people are stepping into those jobs but that is a discussion for another time.

As long as custom design rules the Northeast it will be hard to replace the craftsmanship of their production lines with automated machinery.

Taking an even closer look at the modular way to build a home you find that building wall panels and lifting them onto the floor of a module is about as far as automation can go. Installing kitchens, bathrooms, trim and special order features like trey ceilings cannot be automated. It could be outsourced but not automated.

The next time you hear someone say they have a way to automate their modular home factory it simply means they are adding a wall panel machine and maybe a couple of CNC machines. As far as modular becoming automated and having an entire line of robots installing drywall, custom cabinetry or trim on the production line you will have a long wait.

Remember the old commercial where the tagline was “Silly rabbit, Trix are for Kids”? Automation’s tagline is “Silly builder, we stop at framing.”

Will any modular factory in the US ever be fully automated? Probably not in my lifetime unless every person is willing to live in one of maybe 6 minimalist house plans with no options or customization. Yeah, like that would ever happen.

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