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 bigger 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 today as in 1992, but somehow requires 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.
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.
Using robotics in the modular factory is almost entirely limited to wall production and as everyone knows, there's a lot more to building a modular home in a factory than wall panels. Electrical, plumbing, trim and finish are all manual work and will continue to be work many years to come.
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.