Flying under the radarGary Fleisher, who blogs about the modular housing industry at Modular Home Builder, first wrote about Blueprint Robotics in a December 2015 post. He said Blueprint had international backing, mainly from Germany, and compared European interest in the U.S. housing market to Japanese interest in the auto market decades earlier.Asked whether Blueprint had turned out a single house here, Fleisher said by telephone he didn’t know.“My understanding is that the investors and developers who put money into it, and again I don’t have 100% knowledge of this, but I’ve been told they’re mostly European investing companies that have similar plants in Europe, and they opened up this plant to feed their own developments. So, apparently they have developments [in the U.S.] where this kind of product will work very well.”Fleisher said he knows of no other manufacturer in the country using the kind of robotic equipment that Blueprint says it has on its production line, and suggested the company was skirting publicity not because it was secretive but because it was leery of creating unrealistic expectations.“They are afraid if they don’t succeed right out of the gate that people will be suspect of them,” he said.That was the case with a California company, Blu Homes, Fleisher said, which started big but eventually withdrew to a smaller market in the northern part of the state. RELATED ARTICLES World’s Tallest Modular Tower OpensMaking the Case for Prefab Zero-Energy HomesPassivhaus Building the Modular WayBoulder County’s Modular, Low-Income Housing ExperimentBuilding a Better Low-Cost RentalNet-Zero Modular Homes Head for Peaks Island, MaineA LEED Platinum Modular HomeThese Superinsulated Homes Were Delivered By TruckPassive House Building in the Digital Age Fast, precise and uncomplaining, industrial robots revolutionized the automotive industry with production lines that rarely needed a break and mechanical employees who never filed an insurance claim. Now, a group of Baltimore-based entrepreneurs is betting the same approach can work wonders for the U.S. housing market.Operating in a 200,000-square-foot factory in Baltimore, Blueprint Robotics has developed a process for building panelized building components — nearly complete wall, roof, and floor sections — with sophisticated machines that cut parts precisely and take the drudgery and errors, out of assembly. The company promises high quality and low prices and a finished product that will beat what conventional building techniques can produce.Factories that make modular and panelized homes have long used production lines where workers build components indoors on giant assembly tables. The industry says the absence of weather delays, protection of building materials from the elements, and standardized techniques all are advantages over site-built construction. But Blueprint takes the process a step further, and it may be the only such facility in the U.S. using robotic equipment to build houses.“There’s an old saying in building: Price, schedule, quality — pick any two,” Blueprint CEO Jerry Smalley says in a company video. “At Blueprint Robotics, we figured out how to let you have all three.” The industry has been slow to changeWould house-building robots really help ease a labor crunch?“Absolutely!” Tom Hardiman, executive director of the Modular Home Builders Association, said in an email. “Modular factory workers have much more predictable schedules, can work during cold weather months, and work in a much safer environment. As a result, manufacturers generally have a very seasoned, experienced, and stable workforce. With a higher degree of technology and automation, this method of construction opens the doors to younger workers, women, and even disabled people.”One problem is volume; it would take a lot more than a handful of robotically operated house-parts factories to make a dent in the problem. Although most modular manufacturers have adopted at least some automation and assembly line techniques, Hardiman said, Blueprint Robotics is “clearly on the leading edge” as the industry struggles to modernize itself.“The construction industry as a whole is one of the last industry holdouts in terms of automation and innovation,” he said. “Every other major industry has automated to a much greater extent. Construction industry productivity has remained relatively flat for the last 50 years while other industries have seen productivity and efficiency gains. The homebuilding industry is also very fragmented and made up of many small contractors who are very reluctant to changes. The U.S lags behind the U.K., Australia, and even China in terms of construction innovation and automation. Right now, 20-, 30-, and 40-story modular buildings are being erected in these countries.”Modular housing now represents about 3% of all housing starts, Hardiman says, although it is as high as 8% in some regions. (This does not include panelized houses.)Fleisher says that modular housing is fairly strong in some parts of the country — notably, New England and the Northeast — while almost entirely absent in areas like the Southwest. “It’s not even a flea on a dog’s back out there,” he said. The fledgling business was described in a recent article posted at Bloomberg. A person answering the phone at Blueprint said that the company isn’t actively seeking publicity, at least not beyond its cooperation with Bloomberg reporters. As a result, many details about the company and its operations are unknown. Still, there’s enough information at the company’s website to get a rough idea of how the company says the process will work. (A video in which Smalley discusses the company is featured below.) Once on site, assembly is speedyLike other panelized or modular buildings, Blueprint’s structures can be assembled rapidly. The company sends its own employees, with a Blueprint crane and fork lift, tenting to be used in case of poor weather, and scaffolding. A 4,000-square-foot house will be “assembled and fully watertight in no more than a two-day period,” the company says, with the rest of Blueprint’s work wrapped up in the following three or four days.When the company leaves the site, the drywall will be ready to paint. The builder who ordered the house will have to take care of siding and roofing, connect the wiring to the meter, and take care of sewer and water hookups.“Our terms are net 30 days, so you don’t need to make a deposit when placing an order with us,” the company says. “You will have a line item draw on your conventional construction loan. Our work is inspected by your construction lender.”The price, the company adds, will be attractive to builders used to building on site: “Most importantly,” Smalley says in his video, “we’ve got the price down to a point where it’s compelling to your business.” Blueprint’s website says that means “faster and less expensively than you do it today — and do it with the best materials and the highest level of quality.”Other factories, such as Ecocor in Maine and Phoenix Haus, headquartered in Detroit, produce panelized house components with Swedish-made Randek equipment, including computer driven saws and folding assembly tables that can flip wall sections over hydraulically. Unity Homes, a New Hampshire company, uses automated cutting equipment and computer generated plans to enhance precision. This kind of production is common in parts of Europe, but not the U.S. Ecocor, Phoenix and Unity can produce panelized components that are able to meet the Passive House standard or operate at net-zero energy efficiency — well insulated and essentially airtight. Whether Blueprint is capable, or interested, in that level of construction is one of many unanswered questions about the company. Can robots solve a labor crunch?With the collapse of the housing industry in 2008, many construction workers fled to other industries. Construction has since rebounded, but not enough of those workers have come back to fill the growing number of jobs, and younger people are not entering the trades in enough numbers to meet demand. Just 3% of adults from 18 to 25 years old picked construction trades as a career goal, according to a recent survey from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).That’s an issue weighing heavily on the minds of many builders. A NAHB survey published in January said that 82% of the builders it polled thought that the cost and/or availability of labor would be a significant problem this year. That’s more than any other single issue. (Fine Homebuilding magazine is addressing this problem with its Keep Craft Live effort.)Bloomberg’s report suggests that companies like Blueprint Robotics might help solve that problem by creating openings for less skilled workers while filling some of the production gap caused by a labor shortage. People can be taught how to run house-building robots much faster than they can learn how to build houses by hand.The report begins, for example, by introducing Cyndicy Yarborough, described as a 26-year-old former Wal-Mart clerk with no training or background in construction. She now works on the Blueprint production line, loading wall and floor sections onto a truck for shipment. The single mother, who has been working there for about a year, took a course in CNC production before joining the company and has no interest in learning about traditional construction. Rather, she’d like to be part of the team that creates design maps used by robots, Bloomberg said. Three separate production linesThe company’s message seems to be geared toward builders, not the general public. Blueprint invites developers or builders to submit floor plans, elevations, or completed construction documents, and says that it will respond with a “preliminary price” within days. Following a review, Blueprint provides a firm price and a set of drawings, with delivery based on the completion of the foundation by the builder.Once the contract is signed, the building goes into production. Blueprint has divided the process into three production lines: one for walls, one for the roof, and a third for the floor. Wall construction revolves around a German-made machine called a WBS-160 beam center, which cuts top and bottom plates, and drills holes for plumbing, venting, and electrical rough-ins. The framing station, which is next, can produce 40 linear feet of wall in about 11 minutes, with robotically driven nails placed so precisely nary a one will miss a stud, according to the company.OSB and drywall layers, wall openings for windows and doors, outlets, and switches are added robotically, although actual electricians are standing by to add fixtures, outlets, and switches.The company offers several insulation options, including denim, rockwool, fiberglass and dense-packed cellulose. Robots also apply Huber’s Zip-R insulated sheathing. The part of the process that requires the most people is drywalling; tradespeople do the work.Floors and roof sections — completed on separate production lines — are made in much the same way. Blueprint uses open-web floor trusses for most applications (and guarantees that floor deflection will be no more than 1/720), but can use I-joists or dimensional lumber if the customer prefers. Roof sections get Huber’s Zip sheathing.When walls are complete, they are shrink-wrapped and set aside for shipment. A finished package — what Blueprint calls a “custom-built closed wall frame” — include doors and windows, rough-ins for mechanicals, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection, interior doors, sheathing, and insulation. Parts go out on standard tractor trailers, with no special over-the-road permits required.
View comments Private companies step in to help SEA Games hosting Bloomberg: US would benefit from more, not fewer, immigrants LATEST STORIES Trump tells impeachment jokes at annual turkey pardon event Doncic, the likely frontrunner for rookie of the year, missed 12 of his 18 shots but still finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Dragic outscored him 9-1 in the fourth, when the Heat outscored the Mavericks 30-17 to rally from a seven-point hole entering the final quarter.“Goran was electrifying,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.Despite their age difference — Dragic turns 33 in May, Doncic just turned 20 last month — they have been close for years. They were roommates and the best two players for Slovenia two summers ago when the tiny nation won the EuroBasket title. That championship provided, unquestionably, the best sport moment in Slovenian history.This Miami-Dallas game was a huge deal for Slovenia as well. Many journalists from Slovenia made the trip, along with all those fans. So for one night, Miami may as well have been Ljubljana.“The building was electric for those two,” Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki said. “They’re heroes over there. Both had great games and played great floor games. Dragic had a triple-double and Luka is always close to one. Dragic was fantastic tonight.”ADVERTISEMENT Cayetano: Senate, Drilon to be blamed for SEA Games mess And when Goran Dragic — the player of the night — emerged from the locker room for his curtain call, the roar was deafening. They jumped and chanted, all these Slovenians who made the trip to Miami to see Dragic vs. Luka Doncic, their favorite native sons, meet as NBA opponents for the first time.“Unbelievable,” Dragic said after escaping the throngs of people and signing dozens of their jerseys, flags, hats and, in one case, a pocketbook. “Every athlete is dreaming about this, to connect with the fans. I really appreciate them.”FEATURED STORIESSPORTSPrivate companies step in to help SEA Games hostingSPORTSPalace wants Cayetano’s PHISGOC Foundation probed over corruption chargesSPORTSSingapore latest to raise issue on SEA Games food, logisticsDragic and Doncic appreciated them as well, and the fans got the fantastic show that they were hoping to see. Dragic had his second-career triple-double — 23 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists — and he and Miami topped Doncic and Dallas 105-99 on Thursday night.“It was a special night,” said Doncic, whose mother was among those in the crowd in Miami as well. “It was something special to me. I really appreciate everyone coming in and it was a very special night.” Wintry storm delivers US travel woes before Thanksgiving Panelo: Duterte ‘angry’ with SEA Games hosting hassles Colombia protesters vow new strike after talks hit snag Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic (77) defends against Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (7) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Thursday, March 28, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)MIAMI — The game had been over for at least half an hour and 2,000 people remained in the stands at AmericanAirlines Arena, all of them standing.They wore Slovenia jerseys. Miami jerseys. Dallas jerseys.ADVERTISEMENT This season for Miami has been all about it being the final year of Dwyane Wade’s career, and after games Wade has been trading a jersey with an opposing player in a quick on-court ceremony.He got upstaged Thursday and didn’t mind — while he was trading with Dallas’ Devin Harris, Dragic and Doncic were exchanging their jerseys as well.Predictably, the fans loved that, too.“You can’t question their enthusiasm,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “This was wild tonight. It was really wild. Having Dragic and Doncic out there, it was like a feeding frenzy for them, which is great. It speaks to the world-wide stretch of the NBA game. It was pretty cool.”Sports Related Videospowered by AdSparcRead Next Google Philippines names new country director MOST READ Beau Belga repeats as PBA Obstacle Course champion PH underwater hockey team aims to make waves in SEA Games PLAY LIST 02:42PH underwater hockey team aims to make waves in SEA Games01:44Philippines marks anniversary of massacre with calls for justice01:19Fire erupts in Barangay Tatalon in Quezon City01:07Trump talks impeachment while meeting NCAA athletes02:49World-class track facilities installed at NCC for SEA Games02:11Trump awards medals to Jon Voight, Alison Krauss Don’t miss out on the latest news and information.