Illustrations by Jason Schneider

Walls squared—check. Studs straightened—check. Sheet materials with window and electrical openings placed according to CAD—check. Conduits and insulation installed—check. Gypsum and OSB waste separated and handled, dust extracted—check. Seamless performance to computer specs without any human intervention—check.

A perfectly framed wood home is built—precisely as designed, in record time, and without drama, delays, or injury—by a team of two robots. This is the ZeroLabor Robotic System, the first multifunctional application of mass-produced robotics with the ability to produce framed buildings. The first one was installed by Norwegian forest products company Moelven at its volumetric plant in the Vämland region of western Sweden in 2016, and the plant saw productivity quintuple without any increase in staffing.

Swedish company Randek, which makes high-performance machines and systems for prefabricated house manufacturing in 36 countries and developed the world’s fastest wall line for Toll Brothers in 1992, is bringing its robotics revolution to U.S. production home building: Menlo Park, Calif.–based end-to-end modular construction company Katerra recently purchased three ZeroLabor units, to be delivered next spring.

The Road to Robots

Since the 1960s—when silicon valley pioneer SRI International introduced Shakey, a robot that made jerky physical movements and had crude humanlike perceptions—futurists have predicted an eventual robot “takeover” of all things industry. (The word “robot,” Czech for “forced labor,” was invented for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” Karel Capek’s 1921 play.) Now—suddenly, it seems—the Jetsons age is here. Robotics is seeping into entire industries as well as daily lives, bringing change ranging from convenient to transformational.

Machines now carry out 29% of all workplace tasks, and that is expected to hit 52% by 2025, according to a World Economic Forum report released in September. But in the production home building industry, where new ideas sometimes take decades to gain traction and consumer demand for freedom of choice impinges standardization, robots have yet to make a dent.

Integrating robots’ advanced value-adding work into an industry dependent on piecework and distributed manual labor is not easy, says Scott Hedges, principal at Merchantville, N.J.–based Bygghouse, which provides a bridge between the building traditions in North America and Europe, and a former sales consultant for Randek. ZeroLabor can be integrated into existing production lines or work as a standalone unit to produce walls, floors, and roofs.

There’s more than a little irony in the fact that designers use computers to draft and engineer homes, then build them using old-school technology like saws and hammers, Hedges says. ZeroLabor, instead, channels data from CAD files directly to robots that can switch among four different tools to build the designs—an improvement over previous systems that used separate robots for each tool. And in a huge milestone for home building automation, the robots can customize walls without any penalty for time performance. The company estimates that its automated workers are five times as fast as their human counterparts, Hedges says.

In creating a wall panel, the robotic system docks on the tool needed to perform each task, and when complete, returns the tool. The process works like this: The unit picks up drywall sheets from various stacks using a vacuum cup system and places them according to directions from a CAD file. Entire sheet packages are fed into the system, and the robot verifies and calibrates each sheet before accurately placing it to the building component.

The robot screws, staples, nails, glues, and cuts out openings for windows and electrical as needed. It even straightens studs before nailing and marks building components using an inkjet printer. At the end of the task, the robot automatically separates waste and places it in the appropriate bins.

Tech Pioneers

When oil was discovered, Hedges points out, oil companies had to find creative ways to get people to buy and use it. Randek is in a similar situation with ZeroLabor, he says, dependent on companies like Katerra that are willing to give the technology a try.

“It’s very fashionable to say builders are backwards, but I just think the economy we’re in incentivizes their behavior,” he says. “Home building is very profitable; builders are making what economists would think are rational economic decisions. Still, there’s a growing consensus the building industry should become more productive, and the route to productivity is greater use of technology.”

Industry watchers predict that the crisis-level shortage of skilled labor in the U.S. could be what tips builders toward automation, and ZeroLabor will be a user-friendly option when they decide to make the move.

Wikholm explains: “The factory we delivered this automation to, they have no special specific knowledge—it was just an ordinary factory. Because these machines are easy to use, they just picked the best people and are running it. There was no special education. Now, after one and a half years, they’re going to invest heavily in the rest of the factory. That is the best proof you can have.”

These HIVE 50 Innovators will be honored at the HIVE conference, to be held November 28-29 in Austin, Texas, during a reception and dinner. Register now to attend. Take a look at all this year's 50 innovations here. And, don’t forget to vote for your favorite HIVE 50 innovation with the Peoples’ Choice Award, which will be announced at the HIVE 50 Honors dinner.