We have all seen movies and cartoons where cavepeople use rocks to smash other rocks to build something. Over time, humans transitioned from handheld rocks to tools with wooden handles, precursors to the hammer. Would it surprise you to know that the science of hammers has not evolved much since, and neither have the means and methods of construction?
Walk through any construction site today and you will find carpenters, masons, plumbers and steelworkers all using some form of a hammer. Progress has been very slow in the construction industry. Construction is still labor-intensive, hazardous and terribly inefficient. Modern construction wastes resources and harshly impacts the environment and the surrounding community. Every year there are significant increases in the costs of construction, much of it due to the cost of labor and how that labor is deployed on a construction site. Developers often complain that construction schedules are increasing in comparison to previous years, while contractors are having a difficult time finding and employing qualified tradespeople.
Traditional Construction Versus VMM
Contractors and developers have come to the realization that change is both necessary and inevitable. A quiet revolution is occurring in the systems used to create modern housing. The new twist on an old method is called volumetric modular manufacturing (VMM), which refers to creating a large number of residential units at an offsite facility. Many ship directly from the factory up to 95% complete with windows, flooring, painted drywall, plumbing fixtures, lighting fixtures, doors and kitchen cabinets with countertops. To fully understand VMM, we must compare it with traditional construction techniques.
Construction sites have not evolved in the modern era. Workers travel to the job site, bringing tools, equipment and materials. Work must be carefully sequenced to avoid schedule conflicts. All projects start with site work; only then can foundations and other trade work commence. Work that is completed out of sequence will typically be removed before the project can move forward due to the series of inspections that occur in a very specific order.
Within a modern modular manufacturing plant, various parts of the project can advance at the same time, resulting in greater efficiency. While team number six is taping drywall on one module, team number two is assembling floor frames on another. VMM takes a page out of the automotive industry’s playbook, using highly organized stages that construct modules one stage at a time. Each stage is viewed as a subassembly; multiple subassemblies are combined into components that can be added to the construction of a single module. The workforce for each trade does not diminish or grow as the work advances. All trades work at the same time, at different stations, in contrast to conventional construction, which requires workers to move about the entire job site to perform their specific tasks. This simple change in process results in significant cost and time savings for construction projects.
Work at a VMM plant is conducted indoors, away from the impact of harsh weather. Conventional construction sites face blistering heat, crushing cold and storm-related damages. Water damage often occurs during the construction due to unprotected or incomplete work. These conditions are nonexistent in a factory environment. The modern VMM plant also recycles a greater quantity and variety of materials, a net benefit for the environment.
The transition from conventional on-site construction to VMM is a monumental improvement in efficiency, quality and safety. Nevertheless, this is just the first level of advancement in construction technology. Firms like my own are improving on automated assembly lines by incorporating robotics and artificial intelligence to build today’s residences. While maintaining the practice of combining subassemblies into larger and more complete units, these firms free workers from repetitive and dangerous tasks. Workers are no longer required to lift heavy materials or work in hazardous environments. This work is now performed by automated tools and robots, all of which are controlled through sophisticated software and AI. Technicians and engineers program and maintain this specialized equipment to ensure that subassemblies consistently comply with high-quality standards and tolerances.
The deployment of robotics in the modular manufacturing industry is a game-changer and will increase the rates of production. RSMeans data tells us that a typical ten-story apartment building conventionally built can easily take more than a year to complete after the foundation is set. A volumetric manufacturing approach for construction reduces the time required to construct the same building to nine months or less. My company and other modern factories can produce the equivalent of eight homes within a standard workday. This will help address the housing shortage that is plaguing our nation. Manufactured housing and structures can help meet a wide array of housing requirements, including workforce, affordable, market rate and senior housing.
Developers, homeowners and contractors will all benefit from the improvements provided by robotics and automation in the volumetric modular manufacturing industry.