Fifty years ago, the idea of a robotic housekeeper like in the cartoon series The Jetsons may have seemed like a far-off, unimaginable concept. But things have changed. While we may not yet have a full-body robot named Rosie to help clean the house, we do have a number of options when it comes to robotic appliances. And if the increasing presence of robotics in manufacturing and construction is an indication of what’s to come, we could one day see even more robots in the home.
Robots have been automating window and door manufacturing for several years, and similar technology is now also being applied to the installation of these products in modular homes. Future improvements in this area could ease one of the biggest challenges the homebuilding industry faces: labor shortages. In fact, recent surveys from the National Association of Home Builders show that the lack of workers is adding about 5.2 percent to the average cost of a new home.
But a labor shortage isn’t the only problem in construction. The industry has long struggled to embrace technological innovation, and productivity has suffered because of it. According to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute, since 1945, productivity in manufacturing, retail and agriculture has grown by as much as 1,500 percent in the U.S., but it’s barely budged in construction. Globally, if construction productivity could catch up with the total economy, the industry’s value could rise by $1.6 trillion a year. That could meet half of the world’s infrastructure needs, according to the report.
Blueprint Robotics in Baltimore runs an assembly-line operation that builds modular (also known as manufactured) housing, a segment that has matured far beyond the old stereotype of mobile homes and shoddy construction. The market is growing, too. U.S. demand for manufactured housing is expected to reach 85,000 units in 2020, according to a study from the Freedonia Group, an international industry market research company based in Cleveland.
Today’s modular homes are nothing like trailers; in fact, they’re often indistinguishable from stick-built homes. And the term “modular” covers a huge range of construction nowadays. Blueprint, cranks out everything from multifamily units and hotel rooms to mansions that sell for millions. And they’re fast, too—the company says it can reduce total time on a multifamily project by 30 percent.
Inside Blueprint’s facility, walls for modular homes are put together along a robotic assembly line. The company says it can produce 40 linear feet of framed wall in about 11 minutes. Robots then precisely cut the rough openings windows and doors. After adding drywall, insulation and siding, a pneumatic gantry picks up the doors or windows, places them in the pre-framed and cut openings, and secures them in place. Carpenters in the factory then complete the fastening and flashing.
Could this type of robot-assisted window installation be used in the field, maybe even to build your next home? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Several robotic construction devices, such as Hadrian, a masonry robot that can put down 1,000 bricks an hour, are already there.
But it might still be a ways off before robots handle detailed work such as installing flashing around windows. This is partly because the building construction process doesn’t lend itself particularly well to automation.
“Products must be designed for efficient automated assembly, and buildings are no different,” says Mic Patterson, director of strategic business development with Schuco-USA, a manufacturer of window and door products. “To really optimize the potential for on-site automated construction, we need to rethink the entire building process starting with the design of the buildings themselves, the materials used, the design of components and products—taking maximum advantage of smart, offsite pre-assembly and prefabrication strategies—and finely tune all to facilitating very specific and detailed strategies for automated onsite assembly … effective on-site automation requires a fully integrated building process from concept through construction.”
While robots are still relatively rare in window and door factories, automation isn’t. Growth is accelerating in this area, and that’s primarily because this industry, like construction, is struggling with the same labor issues.
Many window and door companies are adopting enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions. This involves automating the entire production process and eliminating “islands of automation,” or the automation of only certain processes in a facility.
According to Brant Olson, a sales technician and fenestration ERP expert at software company WTS Paradigm, “A well-run, well-executed plan on the front end can make all the difference in the world when it comes to overall satisfaction and productivity after an ERP system is in place.”
One of the latest developments in manufacturing is what’s called Industry 4.0, also known as the fourth industrial revolution. This current trend of automation and data exchange is used to create a “smart factory,” and is transforming manufacturing by combining the miniaturization of sensors with advances in wireless Internet technology and applications. It’s also popularly known as the “Internet of Things” (IoT), and offers a number of benefits including efficiency, shorter lead times and lower costs thanks to automation and fewer workers.
Most likely, robots will also play a big role with window and door manufacturers, too. According to the International Federation of Robotics, since 2013, shipments of multipurpose industrial robots in China roughly doubled to an estimated 75,000 in 2015, with that number forecast to double again by 2018. Meanwhile, the U.S. is increasingly adopting “cobotics,” which is the use of robots to complement workers rather than replace them.
Still, there are some challenges that will need to be addressed.
“We’re starting to see some of the larger [door and window] companies using robots, but the hard thing is it’s all about the programming,” says Jonathan Chauvette, the vice president of sales and marketing with Quebec-based machinery company Groupe Eugenie. “The robots are very flexible, but there are a lot of challenges, because a lot of people programming them don’t have the knowledge.”
Despite that, people seems anxious to put robots to work.
“Many customers are asking us ‘What’s next?’” says Joe Shaheen, director of sales and marketing with GED Integrated Solutions. “They’ll ask ‘What other machines or processes can utilize a robot, or robotic technology to automate?’ ”
It’s too soon to say whether robots will ever install windows, but robotic technology has certainly made its way into areas of both manufacturing and construction. As these advances can help improve cost efficiencies, that’s a benefit that could also make its way to you in the form of cost savings in your search for new doors and window. And when you’re ready to start, be sure and look to Glass.com to find the dealers and distributors in your specific area that can get you on your way to seeing through windows with a whole new view.