Can Crooked Lumber Defeat Robotics?

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The Last Word
Issue #15291 - October 2023 | Page #134
By Joe Kannapell

A robot visited the BCMC Show floor again this year, and, for the first time, really showed its stuff, picking truss plates like there was no tomorrow. And its dynamic demo couldn’t be missed, as House of Design (HoD) positioned their Nail Plate Picking Cell right at the exhibit’s entrance. Further down the aisle were Randek and Trussmatic, who both have successfully deployed their own plate pickers in truss plants around the world. And, not to be overlooked, was Jim Urmson’s implementation 14 years ago. Surely these collective achievements have proven that robots can successfully process truss plates. Whether robots can handle crooked lumber is another matter and has been a bone of contention since the first automated equipment came to BCMC.

In 1998, Makron’s wall panel line was featured on the BCMC plant tour at Western Home Center in Cincinnati (see The Last Word from July 2019, The Second Wave of Automation?). While Makron’s extruder process had little in common with today’s robotics, it was one of the first European lines to be tested with American wood and to raise doubts that the line could handle its greater variability versus its European counterparts. This skepticism was underscored by the flood of “near perfect” German studs that arrived in panel plants in the early 2000s. Given that QC requirements are much more stringent for trusses than walls, CMs were rightly concerned that too many crooks and other lumber imperfections could impede the use of roof truss robotics.

Further to this point were the differing views expressed during 4Ward’s discussion panel on robotics at the Show moderated by Mike Ruede, Jr. One panelist speculated that a new material could take the place of lumber, and another suggested that Weyerhaeuser will be growing better trees and producing better wood. Others hold out the promise of 3D printing. I asked whether automated culling could be carried out at the component plant to which HoD’s CEO, Shane Dittrich, cited the mountain of culls produced when this was attempted at Katerra’s failed plant. Given that Katerra was processing Western Woods, the chance of successful automated culling of Southern Pine at component plants seems impractical, and I would say futile. Modern Southern Pine saw mills already employ much more extensive means than could ever be duplicated at a truss plant, including sonar to assess strength and two- or three-dimensional vision technology to identify defects.

Despite the impracticality of automated culling onsite, there are ways that truss plants can and will be able to use technology to improve the quality of materials entering robotic assembly. Currently, with Steve Aylsworth’s Ranger RS system by Acer, boards can be properly crowned. And in the future, with some lesser degree of automation, culls may be lessened by removing defective portions of boards and recapturing most of their value. Or by recognizing plate locations prior to sawing, boards could be flipped end-to-end to lessen the chance of defects in the plate area (see The Last Word from November 2022, The Last Word on Pre-Plating).

In summary, crooked lumber can defeat robotic systems, as occurred at Katerra, but doesn’t have to, as evidenced by the nearly two dozen robotic truss lines operating currently in the U.S. However, all of these lines are somewhat compromised by bad boards, and their long-term success depends on how well they adapt to the material at hand. While the likelihood that another material displaces wood is remote, any practical technology that can lessen rejects will be increasingly important as the number of robotic lines grows.

A Few Words on the 2023 Joe and Adam Kannapell BCMC 5K Run Walk

We ran where we began a dozen years ago, and we did better than ever at this year’s BCMC 5K. The weather was ideal as 70 of us set off just a block away from the lighted fa├žade of Indiana’s State Capital. After passing the State Museum, we ramped down to the quiet refuge surrounding the now-finished riverwalk. There, in the middle of the bustling city of Indianapolis, we escaped downtown disruptions, and relished our trek down a wide manicured pathway skirting offices, residences, and even a beautiful memorial to Medal of Honor winners.

Over these years, we have immersed ourselves in so many scenic surroundings: the mighty Mississippi in New Orleans in 2012, the touristy San Antonio riverwalk in 2013, the redeveloped Milwaukee River walkway in 2015 and 2018, the Tennessee River in Knoxville in 2016, the parklike Scioto River trail in Columbus in 2019 and 2022, and bridging over the Missouri River in Omaha in 2017 and 2021.

All are invited on this annual event and encouraged to enter with a spirit of personal and physical renewal, the same spirit that lifted my late son Adam out of the scourge of mental illness. We look forward to joining you along the banks of the Milwaukee River at the 2024 Joe and Adam Kannapell 5K Run Walk.

You're reading an article from the October 2023 issue.

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