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Built for the Future


The early 1900s saw automobile production explode with the introduction of the assembly line by Ford Motor Co. Nearly a century after the concept was first pioneered, the modular building sector is taking the assembly line model and applying it to homes. This concept has turned homes into a mass-produced item not unlike automobiles or household appliances. The big difference between what Henry Ford was able to accomplish in the early 1900s and today is the use of automation with CNC technology, allowing manufacturers to increase the accuracy and speed of production.

How CNC Automation is Possible

Over the last few years, the modular building sector has seen growth rising from 1 percent of the total value of construction in 2011 to 1.5 percent of the total value of construction in 2012. Modular construction involves building a home in “modules” and then transporting these pieces to the jobsite where they are connected. 

These modules are built in a facility where construction is uninterrupted by weather, subject to better quality control, and most importantly, where the use of CNC machinery is possible. Since 80 to 95 percent of the construction actually occurs in this facility, manufacturers can install CNC machines without needing to transport them back and forth between jobsites. 

How CNC Automation is Being Used

These modular construction facilities are designed in one of two basic flow patterns. Side-saddle flow factories move the modules through sideways in a single line and shotgun-flow factories move modules end-to-end with two separate lines. The flow pattern, regardless of the one used, takes the modules through eight major steps in the construction process: floor framing, floor decking, wall framing, wall set, wall sheathing, roof framing, roof set and roof decking. 

As little as a decade ago, the sizing and joining in each major step was done manually by workers. This has since changed as modular homebuilders have shifted to fully automated productions. The same cuts that workers provided manually, CNC routers now provide with greater speed and accuracy. CNC machines are now being used extensively to do everything from sizing studs and joists, drilling holes for cables or plumbing, and manufacturing stairs. 

Advantages of CNC Automation

CNC automation is quickly gaining traction in the modular building sector because of the many advantages it offers over traditional labor. As baby boomers begin to reach the age of retirement, more and more manufacturers are experiencing a shortage of skilled labor in the workforce. In December 2012, nearly 50 percent of companies surveyed in the Canadian manufacturing sector said they faced an immediate shortage of labor. 

CNC automation hedges against this decreasing pool of workers by reducing the need for skilled labor. CNC automation is shifting the demand away from skilled laborers toward CNC operators. CNC automation provides faster production times than manual labor. These reduced production times, coupled with the ability to work concurrently at both the construction facility and jobsite can lead to huge cost savings. Although the initial costs of CNC automation may be high, it can save manufacturers thousands on operating costs in the long-run. 

CNC automation also allows manufacturers to use their material more efficiently. Manufactures are able to use CAD/CAM software to optimize the use of their material and reduce waste. In some cases, site waste has been reduced by 5 percent or more, which translates to more than one ton of waste diverted from landfills. This optimization can result in a 20 percent increase in material yield, meaning materials are used much more efficiently. This will ultimately save manufacturers thousands of dollars over time as they make use of material previously thrown to the wayside.

Ford’s Model T made its debut in 1908 and sold more than 10,000 units. Over the next six years, Ford perfected the assembly line and by 1914 Ford held 48 percent of the entire auto market. The modular building sector is still in its infancy, but as more manufacturers shift to fully automated productions it too will see a massive rise in growth. There is no denying the many advantages that CNC automation offers and as the technology continues to be optimized for modular building it will only become more appealing for manufacturers in the industry. )

Daniel Austin is the vice president of sales and marketing at MultiCam Canada, a leading distributor of CNC cutting equipment. He can be contacted at daniel@multicam.ca

Griffin Coulter is the marketing intern at MultiCam Canada. He can be reached at marketing@multicam.ca.