Your Next Home Might Be Built by Robots, and You Will Never Know

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©. Randek ZeroLabor robot wall machine

In Sweden, they build homes in factories with workers using sophisticated tools, and now RANDEK is adding robots.

There are many, including this TreeHugger, who think that wood is the best material for building; when sustainably harvested it is a renewable resource that stores carbon for the life of the building. Most of the attention these days is paid to Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), the sexy plywood on steroids; other mass timber products like Nail Laminated and Dowel Laminated timbers are also hot.

But these technologies use a LOT of wood, far more than is actually needed for structural reasons. For many low and mid rise applications it’s overkill. In many ways, wood framing with dimension lumber makes more sense;

  • the walls are lighter;
  • the insulation is in the wall rather than outside, so the assemblies can be thinner;
  • it is far more efficient in its use of materials- the wood goes a lot farther.

We have previously shown how they do it in Sweden, where companies like Lindbäcks Group use precision tools like those made by RANDEK to crank out wall panels for their flat-packed multiple family buildings, or in Canada where Great Gulf H+me Technology is building houses; In the States, Unity Homes, Ecocor and Katerra are doing it;

Here come the robots

The video above shows how it works for H+me Technology (Formerly Brockport) in Milton, Ontario, just west of Toronto. It’s pretty automated but you still see a lot of people running around placing 2x6s in jigs. But maybe not for long; RANDEK has just launched its ZeroLabor Robotic System, which they describe as:

...a fully automatic robotic system that performs various working processes fully automatic. The system is flexible and can be configured to customer need. The robotic system can be integrated into existing production lines or work as a standalone unit. The system can handle production of: walls, floors and roofs.

Robot building wall

© Randek

The robots first check the wall and square it perfectly, even straightening studs if they are bowed at all. Then it picks up sheet materials with a vacuum cup and screws, glues, staples or nails it on where needed. It cuts accurate openings for windows, electrical boxes and conduits. It vacuums up all the dust and puts any waste in the appropriate recycling bin.

The robot system verifies and calibrates each sheet before placing it to the building component ensuring accurate placement. The sheet stacks can be filled or replaced while the robotic system is processing the building component due to the different safety zones making the system flexible and efficient.

The big problem with most wood frame construction in North America is precision and tolerances; it is very hard to get it really accurate in the field. It’s harder still to supervise and check everything, which is why you get poorly installed insulation and air leaks everywhere. That’s one reason that prefabrication was such a good idea, moving it into the factory where working conditions and quality control can be better.

count the ladders

Ladders are the most dangerous tool on a jobsite./CC BY 2.0

But in many cases, trades worked in the factory the same way they did in the field; count the ladders in this photo. It kind of defeats the purpose of prefabrication, and makes it hard to get the precision or the speed that you need to make it viable.

But with robots building complete wall panels with tolerances to a fraction of a degree and a fraction of an inch, putting in the conduits and the insulation and not a ladder in sight, it is another story. The result is a high quality, high performance wall that goes together quickly and accurately.

Robot building wall

© Randek Robot wall building machine

Time for a new elevator pitch

The old elevator pitch for prefab always was “you wouldn’t build your car in your driveway, why would you build your home in a field?” The new one might be “you wouldn’t want your car banged out by hand instead of by robots, why wouldn’t you want the same for your home?”

Really, it’s time to change our expectations, North Americans deserve better.