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OM in the News: Robots May Build Your Next House

April 25, 2017

An electrician checks her blueprint at Baltimore’s Blueprints Robotics factory.

“The future of U.S. homebuilding may depend on robots,” writes Businessweek (April 24-30, 2017). With construction workers in short supply and demand rising, builders are turning to “fast factories” that can build houses like cars on an assembly line, using robots to fire 1,000s of nails into studs each day without missing. Other machines cut, sand, drill, and insulate. The plants enable developers to fill the labor gap by having houses and apartment buildings manufactured off-site, for less money and in a fraction of the time. Even Marriott Hotels is increasingly turning to modular construction.

Builders hire the factories to manufacture homes in sections, which are transported on trucks, then laid down on foundations by cranes, like giant Legos. Sometimes the modules are fully framed rooms, complete with tile showers and gourmet kitchens. The house is 60% complete when it arrives. The idea of transporting homes in prefabricated sections has roots in the early 1900s, when homesteaders could buy kits from a Sears Roebuck catalog for assembly on their newly acquired plots of land. In the 1980s and 1990s, it became increasingly popular to build lower-cost homes in factories.

Today’s plants are capable of producing bigger buildings with more elaborate designs. The Blueprint Robotics factory in Baltimore is one of the first in the U.S. to use robots. Taller multifamily buildings, dorms and hotels are increasingly being manufactured indoors. And so are mansions that sell for millions. Having an indoor facility means weather delays are rarely a factor. Each worker is given a narrow concentration, like tiling floors or sanding drywall, which increases production speed. People without any background in construction can become skilled laborers in 2 weeks.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Provide 2 other examples of fixed position layout (see Chapter 9).
  2. What are the disadvantages of this automated, modular approach?
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