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An automated home building company in Alberta is helping to bring an end to on-site framing crews, and could open a new market for direct wood products sales for forest companies and sawmills.
By Tony Kryzanowski
The days of the framing crew and massive material waste on building construction sites could be numbered and the Canadian forest industry should take notice. An Edmonton, Alberta homebuilder has proven that there is a much more efficient and profitable approach to building construction.
What’s good news for the solid wood industry is that while the homebuilder expects to generate a lot less waste, it expects to construct 25 per cent more homes. The goal is to construct 1,200 new homes per year using the new system.
Homebuilder, the Landmark Group of Builders, has invested over $15 million for a new, fully automated, panelization building plant. Workers use automated equipment in the company’s southeast Edmonton facilty to create custom floors and panels according to the building design for each structure, and the system is not limited to a fixed number of designs. In addition to creating the walls and floors, each sealed wall panel also has polyurethane foam insulation, the holes for plumbing and electrical connections, as well as the doors and windows installed. Once complete, the package is transported to the building site and assembled.
“Once the components get to the site, it takes about four hours to completely erect an entire house that has a sealed roof, windows and doors,” says Curt Beyer, president of the Landmark Building Solutions division. “So now, the other sub-trades can come in and work in climate controlled conditions. We take the waiting time for things to happen on each building construction project out of the equation.”
The minimum amount of time it would take a group of expert craftsmen to erect the same building from scratch without any weather delays would be one week. Normally, it takes two to three weeks.
Timing is everything with the Landmark approach. Prior to the package arriving on site, the foundation has already been poured and the panelized floor has been put in place. The roof is constructed and shingled on site on top of the floor using trusses supplied on contract to Landmark. It is lifted and set aside once the building package arrives and then lowered in place once the walls have been erected. By taking this approach, the company avoids numerous potential weather cycles that can have an impact on building dimensions when materials are left exposed on site to the elements usually over several weeks. In addition to a better working environment for sub-trades, the customer also receives a better quality home.
The investment by Landmark into automated panelized construction has attracted so much interest that thousands, including other homebuilders, have toured the company’s new plant, which opened a year ago. This technology is a first for North America. The company has a completely open door policy as far as sharing its technology and construction methods. Other homebuilders are welcome to tour the facility, and individuals at Landmark have made themselves available to answer many of their questions.
The company has been in business for 33 years. It constructs a wide range of homes in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and the surrounding area including town homes, duplexes, starter homes, move ups, high end classics, multi-residential apartment buildings and high rises. The majority of its homes are in the mid-range size at about 1800 square feet.
Beyer says Landmark searched the world believing that there were better ways to build homes. He described the current method of homebuilding in North America as somewhat ludicrous.
“If Ford was to come to your driveway and drop off all the parts for a Ford car and asked you to hire a mechanic to build it, does that make sense?” he asks. “So does it really make sense for a truck to show up, drop thousands of pieces of lumber off in the mud, snow, or on a hot day on a dirt pile, and then you go find a skilled contractor to put this house together as per your specifications? How well do you think that is going to go?”
From a forest industry perspective, this innovation will likely influence how North American solid wood producers market their products in future. The proliferation of the building construction technology used by the Landmark Group means that a new market for direct sales of specialty wood products in economical volumes is evolving. In fact, the Landmark Group has an open invitation to any forestry company interested in providing them with quotes on direct supply of specific building products used in their home packages. They are also willing to pay a premium for them.
This is a bit like how the Canadian grain market evolved. At one time, nearly everyone sold their products through organizations like the Canadian Wheat Board. Then companies began offering growers contracts to grow specialty crops at a premium specifically for that company. Now, many farmers are profiting from, for example, growing barley specifically for Budweiser.
Beyer says that Weyerhaeuser in particular has responded positively to the company’s request for a consistent supply of a specific dimension of oriented strandboard (OSB). It also supplies Landmark’s floor joists.
At present, the company purchases as much of its building materials from local producers as possible, but rarely directly from the sawmill or panelboard plant, and keeps about a two week supply on hand. It works with up to eight different local suppliers of solid wood products who can provide it with the specific quality and dimensions it requires. Landmark fire treats the wood before using it.
“We practice Lean Manufacturing here, so when there are certain marks that are hit in our inventory, it gets replenished by the supplier,” explains Beyer. Lean manufacturing emphasizes minimal waste and as close as possible to just-in-time delivery to the customer. By applying Lean Manufacturing and automated panelized construction, Landmark estimates that it is consuming at least 15 per cent less building material per project. The company has two Lean specialists, one in the plant and one in the field.
Acquisition of building materials is a major coordinated effort between the company’s purchasing, procurement and building design departments, with more people working in these departments than are on the floor of the plant. The automated building construction system that Landmark uses will tell the procurement department how much building material it needs and in what dimensions down to a few millimetres for each architectural design developed by the company based on consumer focus groups.
“We take our waste away in buckets, not truckloads,” says Beyer.
The company purchased its automated panelization equipment from a German company called Weinmann, which is part of the Homag Group. Weinmann has its equipment operating in several plants in Europe. Beyer adds that, “you just can’t beat German engineering.”
Landmark typically takes three weeks to assemble all the necessary home components and fixtures before it begins plant production of the floor and wall panels.
The wall manufacturing process starts with creating accurate building construction drawings, with that information transmitted to the automated equipment.
“Once that process is taken care of, the machines can’t make a mistake because they are all programmed,” says Beyer.
The production line has demonstrated remarkable accuracy and flexibility. Each machine centre could be manufacturing the panels required for three or four houses at the same time, and not all in tandem.
“We try and put through as close to a 40 foot wall section as possible and then we cut them up from there just for efficiencies and to be able to optimize the material,” says Beyer.
The first machine optimizes the plywood pieces for a wall panel and the second machine optimizes the dimensional lumber pieces that are cut into the wall. The third station constructs the door jambs, window jambs and toilet backing. The next station is the framing station.
“The operator sees on the computer screen the next piece he needs to pull into the line,” says Beyer. “If it’s not the right piece, the machine doesn’t recognize it and it doesn’t go forward. So the operator can not make an error.” The entire process is controlled by a bar coding system so that the right components are used in the right building packages.
The next station places the sheathing on the wall. A nailing bridge hovers above the sheathing and places a nail everywhere that it is required.
“The machine never misses,” says Beyer. “It knows where the stud is.” This is as opposed to building on site whereupon close inspection, it’s apparent that workers often miss nailing down the sheathing to the stud in several locations, he says.
The wall is then tipped up on the assembly line and proceeds to the polyurethane foam spray station, followed by the window and door installation station.
“The wall continues down the line, gets inspected, is put on trailers and is erected on site either that afternoon or the next morning,” says Beyer.
The floor manufacturing line starts with optimizing 60’ long pieces of floor joist and cuts up to five jobs at one time. The joists proceed to a computer automated pin station that connects the floor joists as required by the design and the automated glue application station where the joists are prepared for application of the flooring sheets installed using a vacuum system. The final step is computer automated screwing of the sheets to the joists, and erection on to trailers ready for transport to the field.
“Because of the precision of the machines using this method, they can not cut something wrong and can not place a wrong piece in a component,” says Beyer. He adds that because of the speed and the accuracy of the system, the customer receives a better constructed home at a more affordable price than if the home was constructed on site by trades people.
Landmark is planning to expand with more plants throughout North America, and possibly working with other builders in the process.
As part of the automated home building production process at Landmark Building Solutions, a robotic nailer attaches sheathing to a wall panel—and it never misses a stud.
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