Will Automation Always be a Distant Dream for Modular Housing?

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Issue #11245 - December 2019 | Page #84
By Gary Fleisher

Recently I heard, once again, a speaker supporting total automation of the modular production process while comparing modular housing with automobile production lines.

Let me put this to rest for hopefully the last time. Modular housing is not anything like the auto industry. There are two very important reasons this is not a true comparison.

The first is the idea that houses can be produced on an automated assembly line with few production workers. Even if a factory automated the wall and floor panels along with the roof trusses, automation would end at that point in the factory.

From assembling those components into a volumetric module through electrical, plumbing, insulation, drywall, and interior and exterior finishing, no robot or automated machinery will ever be able to take the place of human interaction with the module.

Having watched an agonizing video of a human-looking robot picking up a sheet of drywall, squaring it on a jig so it could place it on a wall panel, and then screwing it to the studs, I can’t believe any factory would want to spend a million dollars or more to have drywall put up infinitely slower than any person who has ever worked that station on the production line.

And let’s not even try to figure out how long it would take a robot to measure, pick up a sheet of drywall, square it, and then cut it to size before fastening it to the wall. My God, please put that robot out of its misery already!

And forget about Robbie applying tape and two coats of compound and final sanding. It would look like seagulls used it for their bathroom after just one wall.

The second reason we can’t compare the two production systems is as simple as looking at the ultimate purchaser of each one.

Ford builds Mustangs. They may have a hundred options including slight body line changes, engines, interiors, and paint schemes but, in the end, there is really only a finite number of actions robots need to make to produce a Mustang. In 99% of those cars, the dealer ordered it and the end consumer simply bought it from the dealer’s lot. And Ford would never take your hand-drawn designs for a totally custom Mustang and build it on their assembly line.

A new house on the other hand is almost always drawn to the new home buyer’s tastes and desires. They move walls on paper faster than a toddler running away while you’re shopping. Choosing doors, windows, trim, countertops, and kitchen and bath cabinetry are what make this the perfect home for the customer.

Literally thousands of standard and special-order options are chosen for almost every new home going onto the modular housing production line. On top of that come Seismic codes for this state, snow load construction for that, and wind speed calculations for yet another, all of which are built into homes on the same production line in the modular home factory.

Unlike the auto industry, we don't have a factory that builds only F150 pickups, another that builds Escapes, and yet another that builds Ford tractors.

No, everything for the home is built on one assembly by human production workers who know how to read the print and how to make the cuts and add the additional materials needed to produce each of those unique homes.

Even BIM has a hard time keeping up with all those myriads of options, codes, and regulations required for each individual customer. Two identical home floor plans, one for NY and one for VA built on the same production line, will be built differently.

Modular housing is one of the last industries in the United States that will ever be fully automated like the auto industry.

As Mark Yost, the President of Skyline Champion, said at this year’s Annual Building System Council meeting, we have to create our own pathway.

That means not relying on people with little real-time expertise in modular production trying to force automation on the industry that is ill-prepared for change.


Gary Fleisher, the Modcoach, is a housing veteran, editor/writer of the Modular Home Builder blog, and an industry speaker/consultant.

You're reading an article from the December 2019 issue.

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