Robots can revolutionize the modular building industry

SAN ANTONIOExpect more robots in modular construction.

Rick Murdock, CEO of Autovol, a Nampa, Idaho-based modular construction company, said as much during the 2022 World of Modular convention and tradeshow in San Antonio.

It’s no secret that labor shortages have been hitting industries across the United States. The construction industry needs more than half a million workers above its current pace of hiring in order to meet demand this year, according to an analysis by Associated Builders and Contractors.  Median age of the workforce also raises concerns, as fewer young workers join and construction veterans retire.

But that’s where robots can make a real impact, Murdock said. He says automation currently takes up about 30% of production at his modular company and expects that to eventually jump to 45%.

That should not take away potential jobs from trade laborers, according to Murdock.

Modular construction eliminates hazards associated with traditional construction. For example,  construction on a factory floor eliminates the potential for falls, the No. 1 cause of construction deaths. At the same time, using robots eliminates tasks such as heavy lifting.

That not only prevents injury, but also promotes diversity in the workforce since heavy lifting is no longer a necessity, said Murdock.

Autovol boasts about 30% women in their workforce. In the overall construction industry, only 3% to 4% of jobs in production, transportation, construction and maintenance are occupied by women, according to a Fixr report.

Modular buildings also take 25% to 50% less time to build than traditional methods, which means faster occupancy and return on investment, according to the MBI. Autovol claims to further reduce both time and costs because of their robots.

“We’ve already seen the demand right now is more than we could possibly build if we had 100 Autovols out there,” said Murdock. “We couldn’t reach the demand.”

Nevertheless, robots during the production process bring challenges. That includes issues with software, as well as the upfront costs of implementing the technology in the manufacturing plant. 

“With automation, you can go in there and change one bit of software and now 10 other things don’t work,” said Murdock. “But when we run into those challenges, data solves it. That’s the education that we’re getting as the pioneers of this automation and robotic technology in our manufacturing plant.”

The factory floor of Autovol is approximately 400,000 square feet, with an adjoining office space of 30,000 square feet. Its robots focus on building completed modular units in the multifamily and hospitality sectors. Murdock said the company plans to expand its plants in other parts of the country.

“I hear people say modular construction is a competitor of traditional construction, I don’t agree,” said Murdock. “I think we are a resource, I think we are a supplier. We need more collaboration between general contractors and modular manufacturing plants.”

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