From file "030_pss" entitled "PWrobots.qxd" page 01
From file "030_pss" entitled "PWrobots.qxd" page 01
From file "032_pss" entitled "PWrobots.qxd" page 01
From file "032_pss" entitled "PWrobots.qxd" page 01

Since the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 20th century, the mechanization of manufacturing and distribution has been at the forefront of both popular culture and business evolution. From H.G. Wells' epic 1898 novel War of the Worlds to Sony's 2005 QRIO robot that can recognize human faces, pick up boxes, and even dance, robots have captured our imagination. Manufacturing and distribution robots, particularly in the aerospace and automotive industries, have been commonplace since the '70s. But residential construction, and particularly pro dealer supply, has been barely touched. That could begin to change as robotics manufacturers and automation companies begin to view the industry as a ripe arena for applications. If they have their way, 2006 could be the year we finally make contact.

“We don't have a huge presence in residential construction and supply; I don't think anybody from the robot side of the world does yet,” says Joe Campbell, director of strategic alliances for Clinton Township, Mich.–based KUKA Robotics, whose clients range across the aerospace, semiconductor, automotive, and pharmaceutical industries. “But what we are hearing is that they are going through the similar changes of many businesses: a lot more variability in product and a desire to optimize the supply chain to manufacture and ship more-complex lots through the distribution network.”

Robotics and automation companies are seeing growth in the application of their products and services to building material handling, such as the stacking and sorting of roofing tiles by these KUKA robots. In the last year, KUKA, which ships between 9,000 and 10,000 industrial robots annually, has partnered with companies exploring the use of robotics in plate glass handling, injection molding, plywood and gypsum board distribution, and even stair rail milling in reaction to what Campbell sees as an increase in manufacturing standardization, value-added services, and technological savvy in a labor-squeezed pro dealer and construction supply universe. “[Pro dealer] advancements in computer technology are making the switch to robots a process that no longer involves moving the stars to deal with robotic flexibility and process planning,” he says. “In particular, having individuals in a manufacturing setting performing stacking and handling when it is tough to find people, it is tough to keep them, tough to pay them—that whole side of the industry is ripe for further automation. Fifteen to 20 years ago it was not. It was too expensive, it was too complicated.”

Testament to KUKA's interest in the residential construction arena is New Berlin, Wis.–based Programming Plus (PPI), a “robotic integration” company that received KUKA's “New Partner of the Year” award in 2005 for its work applying KUKA's technology to the process of milling stair rails. “We started working on stair rails because it was one of the more time-consuming and complicated processes where we felt robotic integration could increase efficiency and value,” says PPI vice president Tim Brooks. Using KUKA robots, PPI is attempting to speed the work of traditional five-axis milling routers by transferring computer-aided design (CAD) drawings to computer-assisted machining (CAM) programming languages that are downloaded into robots that complete the milling in place of traditional CNC machine routers operated by employees.

Robotic applications in construction already include material handling (left) and complex machine milling for stair railings and other millwork components (right).

Although only three months into the sales process, PPI is nailing client interest and orders from millers on both coasts, and Brooks currently is looking at the possibility of taking the company's robotic solutions gear to industry shows, including the International Builders' Show and the Building Component Manufacturers Conference. “I'm starting to look at component manufacturing now to see if there is a fit,” Brooks says. “But so much of that is already done on professional, highly automated equipment that does a great job. I'm really looking to leverage the robots in more complex and time-consuming processes.”

Simple Science In the world of high-speed industrial automation, firms like Cincinnati-based FKI Logistex North America—which has done work for Advance Auto Parts, Liz Claiborne, and Jacksonville International Airport—are also probing the pro dealer sector to begin offering their solutions to time-consuming processes like receivables, product inventorying, and load picking and staging. “More and more it seems like there is an application for our products and services to the industry,” says FKI's director of distribution technologies Bill Hubacek. “As companies develop better ERP and warehouse management systems, there's an opportunity for a company like us to help with efficiencies, especially in the area where product comes in, is received through the system, inventoried, and then a person has to go out and either retrieve the product, stage it at a central point, get it on a truck, and get it out to the customer.”

One of FKI's latest products, the EASYpick GoKart, aims to decrease the labor time involved in the traditional order handling process by mounting radio frequency units outfitted with “cluster picking” software linked to wireless local area networks on a cast-aluminum retrieval cart. The GoKart enables multiple orders to be clustered together, allowing an operator to walk alongside the cart and pull product for several customers at once rather than one by one. The GoKart directs the operator to the appropriate inventory location and indicates the quantity of a product to pick and where to place it on the retrieval cart. The user can then confirm the pulling of a product from inventory with a push-button device incorporated into the GoKart's systems unit.

“A loader who is going to pick multiple orders for multiple contractors is typically going to pick one order at a time, going back and forth and back and forth,” says Hubacek. “This technology allows you to go down the aisle once and pick five orders at one time, and now you have a lot less travel time. The standard GoKart looks just like a lightweight cart. But the cart itself is not the thing we really sell—we can put that GoKart technology on a Bobcat or a forklift if you want it.”

While robotics and automation providers emphasize that a pro dealer should at least have well-developed technology systems before jumping into some of the more sophisticated applications that their products are capable of, they stress that the “future shock” of implementing complex technologies is largely a thing of the past. “This isn't rocket science anymore; it just may be something new to the guy working in a plant making wall panels,” says Campbell, who adds that one of KUKA's clients is currently working on concepts using robots to site-build prefabricated building components. “We're not sure if it will get off the ground, but that kind of thinking is impressive and could make for big changes in the building industry,” he says.

Still, Campbell says not to expect applications to take over the industry at warp speed, especially as the whole intent of automation is to align itself with human laborers, not necessarily replace them. “Nobody's holding back,” he says. “But you do have to follow common business sense on what will give you the best return on investment as you attempt to make every person's job as easy as possible.”