Monday, September 28, 2020

Automating the Existing Modular Housing Factory

The catchphrase today in the modular housing industry is “Automation”, the best way many think will take over many of the redundant processes on the modular production line.

We’ve all seen and heard the experts talking about modular automation.

"We've all seen them" - Progressive Insurance

Many of them have only been inside a manufactured housing factory while others might have visited a real modular factory or two. Some of these experts continue to compare the modular production line with the auto industry. Oh, if it were only that simple.

New modular factories are popping up across the US and some are really trying to bring automation and robotics into their process with varying degrees of success. 

The easiest part of the process to automate is the wall assembly and they have a real handle on this. Robotics are beginning to show up in this area of the modular production line. Other areas these new factories are trying to automate include insulation and windows.

But what happens if your factory was built at least 30 years ago when automation was the thing of Star Wars movies? How would a factory management team of an existing modular factory even start the process of automating?

First, you must look at the factory itself. Because they were built and designed for humans to be the only labor on the production line, they were built around the efficiency of people. 

If one area of the production line became bottlenecked, more people were assigned to it until the line was once again moving at the proper speed.

Buildings as small as 40,000 sq ft could produce 12-18 modules a week simply by adding more labor, which, at the time, was readily available. It didn’t really matter if the laborer was skilled or not. They would learn quickly and be functional on the line within a day because they started in wall panel production.

However, the once predictable and somewhat stagnant modular housing industry has recently been turned upside down by its discovery by the technology and planning experts mentioned above who believe our industry just recently showed up in the market.

Many don’t know that the modular process is centuries old and just recently became popular due in part to the press from Marriott and other hotel chains converting from site built to modular construction.

Adding automation for the first time to an existing factory can be a challenge.

Proper planning is the first step in keeping your risks under control. Failure to plan properly can result in delays at best and potential disasters at worst. Start your plan to bring automation into your existing factory by asking this simple question:

“Why do I want to automate?”

If your factory is to the point that you can’t get enough throughput and additional labor isn’t helping, will automation increase or slow down that process? Will you need to buy or lease expensive equipment that’s far and above the cost of added labor?

Will your factory have to expand to meet the additional space the new automated machinery will require and will it mean additional people behind the scenes to keep it running properly. 

Since the vast majority of automation will be focused on wall panel production, would it be better to add on the extra space needed to the side of your factory and complete it while continuing to use the original space for manual wall construction until the new machinery is ready?

When beginning an automation installation in an existing factory; planning, building your team, choosing equipment, and thorough testing are essential to get the most of updating your factory.

You will also need time for selecting your supplier, development time, current factory labor acceptance, installation time, start-up, training and trial runs before you introduce the new process into the production line.

And don’t be sweet-talked into doing it simply because an expert that visited your plant a couple of times told you to do it. The process will be extremely time, talent and money intensive and if it doesn’t work, that expert will be long gone.

Please don’t overlook the fact that automation success requires trained staff which includes a systems integrator, along with engineering and I.T. resources. Another essential part is properly training those responsible for operating and maintaining the system, which are usually the same people that built the wall panels before automation.

Related Article: Skender Closes New Modular Factory in Chicago

Skender just announced its brand new modular factory in Chicago is closing due to lack of enough funding to keep it operational.

Let that sink in for a minute. 

One of the bigger construction companies in the country had to close a modular factory primarily because they ran out of funding.

If you own an older existing modular factory and think automating the wall assembly area of the production line will speed up the line, be sure you do your due diligence before you order the machinery. Older factories are like older people, we’re set in our ways and will resist change at every opportunity.

Gary Fleisher, the original Modcoach, publishes Modular News, Modular Home Coach and has the consultant directory, Modcoach Connects.

Contact Gary at or 


Steve Murphy said...

Gary, another thought provoker! As someone who has a) set up a new modular factory b) taken over a well established one c) started my career in the automotive industry and am a robotics specialist by engineering discipline (although that was over 35 years ago), much of what you say resonates.
As a technophile, I still agree with you completely, that a rush to automate can often be a fool’s errand.
One of the biggest constraints on the modular sector’s commercial agility, compared to traditional constructors, is the already massive burden of the fixed costs of the factory. Adding to that financial burden through the purchase of a shiny 6dof robot or a fancy Cartesian bridge is not a decision to be taken lightly.
A much more effective and important start point is process repeatability. Automation can help to do that, but huge advances can be made without it. How can we do a task today, exactly the same way that it was yesterday and then what do we need to guarantee it’s done that way tomorrow?
Quality should be a much stronger motivator than just chasing throughput. Get it right, not just get it done.

Patrick Donahue said...

hat's off to booth of you - I think we all know what the major pinch points are.... not sure if automation will solve 80% of those... maybe 20%

Tubby McFatso said...

I'm a technopile too and have worked in a number of industries with varying amounts of automation, from highly- to barely-. There's always the danger of automating chaos, so first look at the process and identify waste. To do that you must be a proficient Lean practitioner in the 7 Wastes. And don't let anyone tell you there are 8. There are 7 (TIM WOOD), not 8 (DOWNTIME). Note, this has to start at the top. It is impossible for this to be a bottom up endeavor, it must be top down.

The other thing is the product, and that becomes the DFM discussion. After you wring out the waste, figure out new or different ways to build things. Then start thinking about automation.

Larry K said...

WELL SAID, Gary! And, agreeing with Steve and Tubby above, there are lots of hidden costs to automation that one does not discover until later.

What are your options?

1. Hire externally only. Bidding IT companies see you as a cash flow, show you an RFP which you may or may not understand, and bind you legally to buy and pay for work which may or may not be all of what you need. You will be presented with a cost/benefit analysis - PLEASE review the estimated savings carefully! I have seen proposals where the "savings" were so inflated that they were a multiple of current expenses!

2. Invest in an automation partner who has a long-term stake in your long term profitability. You see upfront a realistic view of what the automation will cost. Not worth it? SKIP the grand automation, cherry-pick the grandest inefficiencies (low hanging fruit) and continue making money.

Good luck!