Monday, August 26, 2019

Are Modular Home Factories Ready for Automation?

Automation is all around us from automobile manufacturing to Amazon’s automated warehouses. It allows all those oft-repeated parts of the process to be done with little or no human interaction.

picture courtesy of WEINMANN STILES

In the prefab and modular construction industry it seems that only the flat pack wall panel and truss manufacturers are currently using automation to their advantage. Katerra, Entekra, Bensonwood, Blueprint Robotics and other panel plants are installing automated nailers, cnc cutters, presses, insulation installers and wall panel tables that allow them to turn out product 24 hours a day if needed with no added costs except a few hourly production people.

Turning to the volumetric 6 sided modules produced by the modular construction industry finds two distinct types of factories.

The first type of modular factory produces mostly modules for large and small repeated product for hotels, dormitories, affordable housing projects and workforce housing. Automation is quickly being added to build wall, ceiling and floor panels for use in those identical modules. These completed panels are brought together at a central point on the production line where they are assembled into a 6 sided module.

This can be very effect if each project is comprised of many identical modules where production of hundreds of similar wall panel are completed before being sent to the production line. The savings could be quite substantial for both the factory and the developer.

What this type of modular factory has become is a prefab panel plant AND a modular factory under one roof. Foremost Homes, the now closed modular factory in PA, actually had a panel and truss plant next door to their modular home factory. They sold their flat pack panels and trusses to developers all over the East Coast and also supplied their modular factory greatly reducing the labor force needed there. Smart move but sadly they never recovered from the 2008 housing recession and had to close their doors.

The second type of factory is the custom modular home factory. Automation has, of today, still not found much of a foothold on their production lines. There are simply too many variables in each house to allow repeated processes to help them benefit from automation.

Each custom modular home, even if it’s a 2 module ranch, could be extraordinarily different from the next modular ranch home coming down the production line. If the factory ships their homes to several states the problems compound.

Some states require seismic code restrictions while other states have extreme snow loads requirements and still others have fire, sprinkler and high wind codes to meet. States like New York may require homes have sprinklers and meet snow load and seismic regulations which could vary from county to county. Try automating that for the four outside walls of that modular ranch while the next house may require high wind and extreme snow loads.

The answer to the question of “Are Modular Home Factories Ready for Automation” is a resounding “Depends on what you build”

In many cases of modular process automation, the cost to implement such strategies exceeds the benefits. The return on investing in an automation strategy doesn’t always exceed the initial spending costs. This can be especially true for the custom modular home factory.

Complexity is another factor to consider by both the prefab and modular factory. It goes way beyond having the right people to operate all this automation. Other things to consider are:
  • How will it fit into the production process?
  • What happens if one part of an automated process goes substantially over budget while others automated steps come in at budget?
  • How will an automated step in the production process prove beneficial if most of the production line isn’t automated?
  • Is the equipment so complicated that the process cannot be documented in plain English?

And let’s not forget that someone needs to make sure the jobs are running and continually monitoring the health of these automated jobs. Computers do crash sometimes, get turned off or stop and IT sometimes does stuff not always knowing the full ramifications.

When any of these things happen, someone needs to be watching the store and making sure all systems are running and functioning properly.

YouTube is filled with videos of robots hanging drywall, vacuum assisted robotic arms stacking sheets of plywood and even laying bricks. What is interesting is watching how agonizingly slow these efforts are at supplanting the human worker.

The continuing skilled labor shortage will one day soon find automated machinery being added to the custom modular home factory but not until it can more adaptive and cost effective.

As for the prefab side of construction, the automated processes being added will soon be able to do even more than we ever thought possible. It’s inevitable!

Gary Fleisher is a housing veteran, editor/writer of Modular Home Builder blog and industry speaker/consultant.


Factory Owner said...

Gary, you hit the core of the problem why we can't automate like other industrys. Great article.

Another Factory Owner said...

Gary and Factory Owner 1, Correctamundo. If you don't standardize, you can't automate. And I don't see our industry standardizing to that level any time soon.

Tom Hardiman said...

Gary, I think sometimes we equate "automation" with "greater efficiency." And yes, that is the goal. But I think many of our factories have an opportunity to improve overall efficiency without running out and buying robots just yet.

If you are starting up a factory from scratch with a boatload of investor cash, maybe you are all-in on automated factories. But most of the companies in the industry have factories, tools, machines, and people that they have invested a lot of money into also. Can't just throw that out and start over.

At our upcoming annual conference, we are going to address this exact topic - how to improve efficiency in "legacy" factories. Should be a very relevant and interesting topic.

Derek Huegel said...

Gary, You've written an interesting article. When I built my factory last year, I was focused on the automation and cool tools and features that we would like/design into the function of the building. It wasn't until we've been producing for awhile now and after reading the Toyota Way (a book) that my eye's have been opened to the latent talent within our own labor pool. We've focused on the culture, the goal, the "People", and we've seen a 30% increase in efficiency with these alone. The guys at Toyota say that technology should be the last thing to look to; "after" you've ironed out the process and worked every kink out of the system. I couldn't believe it more now, "after" I've been strapped by cash and forced to improve with low cost alternatives. It's working.