Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Robotics Still Limited in Modular Housing Manufacturing

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.

The home building industry is facing not only a manual labor shortage but a skilled one as well.

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.

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

Gary Fleisher is a housing veteran, editor/writer of the ModcoachNews blog and Modular Construction Industry Observer and Information Gatherer

Contact modcoach@gmail.com


  1. Gary, we have to get to a place with some level of standardization. Not necessarily in the house as a whole, but in the subassemblies. A standard module with customizable options (not unlike the auto industry - a tired comparsion for sure).

    Maybe its the bathrooms first. Design for manufacturing /design for assembly. Then we can implement robotics to a greater degree.

    I think what some people fear is that robots will take jobs away from people. Look around, we don't have enough people now and its going to get worse.

    1. Tom you are right that some standardization is needed but with the over regulation of modular builds and delivery I'm not sure that will be feasible in the near future. About the best we can wish for is more use of CNC and other robotics for walls; floors; cut lengths; trusses to still be man assembled. Maybe better station and material flow could be accomplished but the closest we will see robotics will probably be on the commercial side for multi unit deliveries to one location.

  2. By designing for standardization, we are losing the custom aspect of modular construction and along with that, the custom builder. Adaptable processes for robotics should be the goal, not building limited designs

    1. Deb

      Today's custom home builder completes less than 8 homes a year, if that. For modular production to make inroads into the total housing market Tom H is right that some standardization is needed. Think not ask your manufactured dealer down the road if standardization works since they out produce and deliver more single family homes than we do across the country.

  3. Tom, you are so correct. When building custom homes, it is still not cost effective to use robots. They take programmers, as well as, maintenance to make sure they run as expected. Both of which we would be hard-pressed to find. Possibly better suited for the modulars that build a set of products.

  4. In my career I have been lucky enough to see how the OEM wood working industry transitioned from craft to automation - starting in the mid-nineties. What the building systems sector is missing is the formative steps. The DfMA process will help accelerate the pace but learning how to walk before you run is the only way forward. Think of software like Cabinet Vision. Nearly all the shops have it - down to the the mom and pops. This did not happen overnight. In my opinion until a dominate software tool emerges the road will be rocky. My advise is hire a gamer and start with something simple.

  5. Lets See

    It ain't broke so why fix it

    We have always done it this way

    All machines require maintenance and programming/setup

    Most old schools site builders would say the modular process does not work so why try

    Change is inevitable and misery is optional

    Let's ask Toyota to solve the issue while we debate

    1. Hey Anon, Toyota Modular Homes Division has already figured it out. They build 1/3rd of the total US volume annually. Oh, and they are earthquake resistant and come with a 30 year warranty.

    2. Tom

      I will admit I dont know much about Toyota's Modular Home Division yet I would believe that what is accepted by the marketplace on the West Coast would not be a model to follow on the East Coast.
      What I was referring to was the context of the thread on Custom Home's as Consumers dont want a catalog home with standardization like cars.
      I see this as two differing markets, 1) Needing a catalog home with interchangeable parts, like colors, and 2) Wanting a home that is truly custom or perhaps semi-custom in every aspect. Modular Home Production in its current capacity (East Coast)can supply the needs of those requiring an affordable catalog home however in order for production to reach a different segment of the market that will require change in the Industry.

      So the question is how do you get there from here. I suggest starting with a new approach to the exterior elevations not resembling a mobile home of the eighties, automating the building envelope and create semi custom processes to address the interiors in order to reach a different segment of the marketplace.
      It's a must you reach a different segment of the marketplace to grow the industry and standing still will find the industry where it was in 2008 at some point in the future.
      Saving the industry from another downturn is a must even if change is required that most dont like or want.

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