Robots: An Answer to Labor Shortages, High Lumber Prices?

Filed in Technology by on June 13, 2018 0 Comments

While demand for new homes continues to rise, fewer workers are entering the industry as the existing labor forces ages into retirement.

This dynamic has led to longer construction times for homes, a key driver of low housing inventory, pushing up the price of homes across the U.S.

Decades ago, European home builders began shifting away from traditional stick-built construction and deployed advanced manufacturing techniques to offsite production. Today, wood-frame houses built using prefabricated components account for nearly 30% of builds in England and Ireland and 70% in Scotland.

Gerard McCaughey and his Irish company, Century Homes, focused on fully automating the construction process with what he calls a Fully Integrated Off-Site Solution. McCaughey sold Century Homes in 2005 and brought his vision to the U.S. with Entekra Inc. in 2016.

Entekra markets a complete home building process – concept, design, engineering, offsite fully-automated manufacturing and onsite assembly – with custom specifications for each project.

Builders enjoy reduced labor costs and a shortened production cycle, both demonstrated in Entekra’s “Four Men and a Crane” video.

In May, the company received a $45 million investment from Louisiana-Pacific Corporation. Entekra can now expand production at its California facility and open a second site, featuring advanced robotics and much higher volume capacity.

Entekra isn’t the only framing solutions provider using a fully automated and robotic production process. Blueprint Robotics in Baltimore also is targeting the custom home market and promises delivery of frames and walls fabricated offsite with insulation installed and plumbing and electrical roughed in.

Blueprint’s 200,000-square-foot facility has three robotic production lines working on walls, floors and roofs.

Like Entekra, Blueprint touts the time-saving benefits of its process. But the companies also say that an integrated design and manufacturing process featuring precision cuts reduces framing material waste. The monetary value of that waste savings is growing by the day as lumber prices climb ever upward.

While both companies feature fully automated robotic manufacturing processes, they still employ plenty of assembly line workers in their facilities, mainly in fitting and joining. An ongoing research and development project in Switzerland is exploring a more advanced use of robotics in offsite home construction.

Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the National Centre of Competence in Research Digital Fabrication initiative is leading the development and integration of digital technologies in architecture. In March, the project demonstrated how its robots can precisely cut and place frame beams in geometrically complex timber modules.

The timber frame shown in the video will be used on the upper floors of the project’s DFAB House, a proof-of-concept model for many of the techniques being developed. The project has already produced breakthroughs in the use of concrete with its Smart Slab and Smart Dynamic Casting technologies. The concrete components will be used on the DFAB House ground floor with a load-bearing wall of rebar 3D-printed by an autonomous construction robot.

Looking beyond timber framing altogether, 3D printing may be the next revolution: A Ukrainian company with offices in Reno, Nev., PassivDom, is offering self-sufficient, off-the-grid homes 3D-printed with fiberglass and carbon fiber that do not require a foundation. A 775-square-foot, one-bedroom module fully furnished with solar panels installed can be bought for $147,000 with an expected delivery in under two months.

Apis Cor, a Russian firm with an office in San Francisco, has developed a mobile 3D printing robot that uses concrete to print structures onsite. Rather than marketing directly to consumers, Apis Cor is targeting builders and offering its robot as a product.

Home construction has long been on the vanguard of industrial innovation. With the current economic climate dictating a rapid shift in business fundamentals of labor and materials, expect to see big changes in the near future.

For questions about the NAHB Building Systems Councils, contact Devin Perry at 202-266-8577.

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