Unlike the automotive industry, the offsite modular construction industry has yet to achieve the same widespread adoption of automation technologies. However, current trends in the industry are forcing this to change. The lack of affordable housing, chronic shortages of skilled labour, and the demands for consistently high-quality products are at the forefront of this shift.
More and more we see offsite construction companies turning to automation as a solution; yet it’s critical to recognize that automation is not as simple as buying a manufacturing facility and adding robots. While automation might solve a certain set of production problems, it can also create other unanticipated headaches, sometimes leading to expensive equipment sitting idle on your manufacturing floor.
Determining where you’re at in terms of your organization’s automation readiness is critical to your success. In a future post we’ll discuss The Automotive Trap, a false set of assumptions that underly many of the construction industry’s failed attempts at automation. Even though we urge our customers to avoid the automotive trap, you should take a lesson from car manufacturers in one respect. Like GM, Ford or any other traditional manufacturer, you need to understand the Stages of Automation Readiness and specifically your company’s capabilities to fully adopt and manage these new technologies.
Stage One companies typically have no automation and generally rely on manual effort for all their production processes. Builds are completed much the same way as onsite, but in a factory. Technical capabilities include the use of fixtures and jigs, but advanced technologies are not employed. Our guidance for Stage One manufacturers is to carefully consider how much and what type of automation you bring into your organization. At a minimum, do you have operators capable of running complex machinery? What about electrical and mechanical engineers to provide maintenance and ensure optimal ongoing system performance? Do you have process engineers who can address the impacts automation will have on the rest of your manufacturing workflows? Will your new high-output automation outpace downstream processes and create a blockage situation? Can your upstream processes keep up with your robots, or will your automation be starved of necessary parts? Do you have ample space in your facility for automation? These and many more questions should be answered when you’re at Stage One.
In stage two, construction companies may have adopted some lean principles; there is methodology to the build. Build processes follow traditional manufacturing approaches and manual labour is supported and/or augmented by simple, non-programmable automation. Stage Two provides a great starting point for new automation, but like Stage One, a well thought out plan is required to ensure new solutions will enhance and not overwhelm your organizations capabilities. At the third stage are companies that are using CNCs and other programmable yet independent pieces of automation. The challenges and opportunities that exist at Stage Three are exciting to consider. How can we tie these systems together to create more throughput with increased efficiency and better quality? What skills or training can we apply to improve the efficacy of our existing automation? How do we go about making mechanical or software changes to make our automation do more for our customers? And finally, companies at the fourth stage, these firms have adopted fully integrated solutions whereby there are multiple automated systems interacting with other systems. Similar to other advanced manufacturers, a full complement of engineers are employed to address process, mechanical, electrical and maintenance issues and each system is run by highly skilled and capable operators.
The key point here is the need to recognize your organizations capabilities in relation to the complexity of the automation solution you’re considering. As a solutions provider for the offsite construction industry, it’s especially important that we help customers accurately evaluate their stage of automation readiness. The parameters we’ve described here are not absolute, so helping you achieve a clear view of your current abilities and limitations is the first step towards successful adoption. We would never want to provide a customer with a stage four, fully integrated automated system knowing their readiness level is only at stage one.
The good news is there’s low hanging fruit at each stage! Significant opportunities to leverage the latest automation innovations and improve your operations can occur at stage one – it’s all about developing an ROI-based business case that’s right for your organization. And no matter which stage you’re at, our goal is to help construction companies transform themselves and graduate from one stage to the next and ultimately to Stage Four.
Automation for prefab offsite construction is not just the industry’s future, it has the power to address today’s constraints and tomorrow’s demands. Successful adoption depends on how the industry embraces modernization while understanding and addressing current states of automation readiness.