Humpty Dumpty

An important player in the present and near future of home building built a name for himself as he and his colleague developed an innovation that would change the transportation industry.

Very likely, you're thinking a of a name that rhymes with tusk, and you'd likely be correct. But, that's not who I'm thinking of on this eve of Labor Day Weekend.

Rather, the inventor who comes to mind was born, grew up, lived, and died in Michigan, and his name was John T. Parsons. Just after World War II, Parsons was working as head of the Rotary Wing Branch of the Propeller Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and he hired a mechanical engineer named Frank L. Stulen. Parsons was the idea guy, and Stulen knew how to apply those ideas in the real world.

Together, they were the first to use computer--i.e. punch-card operated calculating mechine--methods to solve machining problems, in particular, the accurate interpolation of the curves describing helicopter rotor blades.

Here's an account from of what they did next.

Stulen got an idea from his brother to employ stress calculations on the rotors. Parsons observed what Stulen was experimenting on with punched card machines generating an outline with 17 points and then inquired if it was possible for Stulen to generate an outline with 200 points.

In the process of developing smoother rotors, they managed to generate an early version of the NC, where generating numbers for complex and précised outputs was possible. At that point, Parsons considered a fully automated tool that can surpass the performance of the current NC. In 1949, he turned to Gordon S. Brown’s Servomechanisms Laboratory at MIT to develop a feedback system that can gauge how far the controls had actually turned.

With enough resources to back the project, the system was displayed in September 1952. The MIT’s system was a triumph, so that it was now possible to come up with any complex cut that cannot be copied manually. Yet due to its complexity, its reliability in a production setting is reduced, not to mention its cost that is worth more than $2,641,727.63 in today’s currency.

Parsons and Stulen were definitely on to something, but the price tag was so high that it got Parsons fired from his own company.

Another angel investor came along, funding progress that improved the quality and efficiency of NC that got rid of the punch cards and replaced them with mag tape. Here's what happened next.

The CNC machine first appeared when John Runyon managed to produce punch tapes under computer control. This showed dramatic results in terms of time, reducing the normal production duration of 8 hours to 15 minutes. In June 1956, the Air Force accepted the proposal to produce a generalized “programming” language for NC.

Eventually, the Air Material Command at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Aircraft Industries Association (AIA) collaborated with MIT in 1957 to generate a fully computer controlled NC system. The invention of CNC machines paved the way for automated tools that meant cost efficient production for manufacturers.

CNC mills have very little differences with its predecessor in terms of its concept. The modern CNC mill still functions in machines to produce outputs in three dimensional directions: X and Y axes, and depth. Examples of CNC systems applied in various industries include laser cutting, welding and ultrasonic welding among others.

Now, what off-site home builders like Walpole, N.H.-based Bensonwood Homes and its Unity Homes entry-level division, and Ripon, Calif.-based start-up Fully-Integrated Offsite Solutions builder Entekra and others are doing is programming code conversion of architectural, engineering, mechanicals, and construction data into CNC machines that can cut precisely, repeatedly, and with any number of variations to create structual members of home systems.

The members that come out of these CNC-machined tools are predictably, exact in every measure, a virtual anomaly in construction, and that allows tight, square, true fits as each member is assembled during the fabrication process.

One way to look at the work of John T. Parsons and Frank L. Stulen in light of what they collaborated to invent is as a dramatic reduction of needed skilled labor in the construction workflow. These machines can make their cuts and produce their members at far greater volume than a human crew can, and with utter precision.

Another way to look at their innovation is through the lens of the quality of the work CNC milling produces.

Better, squarer, truer, more accurate three-dimensional cuts wind up as stronger, higher performing, tighter structural members of a home.

Parsons and Stulen applied brilliance in a messy real-world, high-stakes arena, and did work that allowed for material milling in three-dimensions by computer driven cutting tools.

Now, people like Tedd Benson and his team at Bensonwood and Gerry McCaughey at Entekra, and Blu Homes, and Modular Lifestyles are applying brilliance to changing the way homes are made, and as a result, building better.

The true job of the capability to cut and shape the way CNC machines do that is not to end the skilled labor shortage, although that can be an effect of more widespread use, greater scale. It's the "better" part, the more precise, better fitting, stronger system that is the really exciting part of what off-site home building engineering, design, and construction firms are doing with them.

So, the thing to contemplate this Labor Day is bringing more talent into the business who can apply this brilliance at the front-end, the coding the engineering, the design conversions, the analysis, the building it digitally before it gets build physically. That's the kind of labor housing and construction has the greatest shortage of right now, and it doesn't even know it.