When the new Pro-Build Holdings roof truss plant goes on line next year, it will mark the latest–and perhaps most significant–milestone in the half-century history of factory-built framing. By using robotics instead of human workers for the bulk of the plant's production, the Pro-Build facility bursts through the industry's envelope, topping even the first automated component saw used at the Villaume Industries' Twin Cities truss operation in 1985, and laser-projected jigging systems developed a decade ago that streamlined component manufacturing.

Current wall-panel equipment technology, such as these feeders and extrusion tables from Stiles Machinery, has evolved to high levels of automation; most factory workers are now off the floor and behind computers, directing various stages of production. As a privately held (if giant) supply chain entity, Englewood, Colo.-based Pro-Build Holdings won't disclose what it spent to install robotic equipment at its new truss operation. But suffice it to say the investment pushed well past the $6 million or so typically required to build and outfit a modern, nonrobotic component factory. Once any bugs are worked out, the dealer envisions upgrading its 40-plus manufacturing facilities with the technology to serve 500-plus pro sales locations nationwide.

What kind of efficiencies are we talking about? Current wood-truss technology, so-called data-driven component manufacturing that uses computer-controlled equipment, can pump out about 900 roof truss setups per eight-hour shift. This might require 25 workers and produce up to 6 million board feet of product per year, per shift. A robotics-driven system, meanwhile, purports to produce the same volume with about five workers per shift. "We conservatively estimate that a truss operation can save $1.5 million in annual labor costs" compared to a typical, two-shift operation using a data-driven process, says Doug Johnson, sales manager for TCT Manufacturing in Mount Dora, Fla. TCT patented and sold the truss-building robotics system to Pro-Build, the first such sale for the company. "Depending on production volume, that's less than a three-year payback" on the system, Johnson says.

That has Pro-Build's corporate execs excited. "This business is driven by reducing costs in the supply chain," says Dave Walstad, president of U.S. Components LLC, Pro-Build's manufacturing division. "A 12 million board-foot capacity plant can be five times more productive with robotics."

Within the $15.4 billion domestic structural building components industry, there are about 2,500 truss or wall-panel making facilities run by about 2,000 companies nationwide, according to the Wood Truss Council of America. Nearly 90% of them operate independently and exclusively in that business. About 80% of those sell directly to home builders and residential framing contractors, while the rest distribute through lumberyards. Rarely does a company sell to both contractors and lumberyards in the same market.

Past Ways

That wasn't always the case. "Lumberyards used to rule component framing, mainly because they had the lumber," says Don Carlson, publisher and editor of Automated Builder magazine and a veteran of the factory-built framing industry. "Many of the current truss and panel operations grew out of them," eventually becoming independent businesses.

Other dealers killed off their component-making operations as the investment in technology to remain competitive outstripped demand, revenue, and profitability. "The cost to be in the truss business today is prohibitive" to most independent or small dealers, says Jack Van Cleave, sales manager for Alpine Equipment in Grand Prairie, Texas, a leading component-building equipment suppler. "Some kept up, but as equipment technology evolved and got more expensive, it drove most of the independent dealers out of that business."

Today, even with diverse dealers such as 84 Lumber, BMHC, and Pro-Build Holdings each boasting 20 or more truss operations serving several markets under their corporate umbrellas, the LBM industry accounts for a mere 10% share of the component framing industry. In addition, dealer-affiliated shops typically produce trusses or wall panels for their own needs, rarely selling to or through other dealers.

The largest dealers, of course, account for the bulk of that small slice of the overall wood component industry pie. In 2006, 58% of the ProSales 100 reported operating roof truss plants, with 53% and 38% running floor truss and wall panel facilities, respectively.

But those numbers are down slightly from 2003 and about even with 2005, perhaps signaling a saturation point among the largest dealers, even as related services, including installed component framing and whole-house engineering and design, trend slightly up among them. "I haven't seen interest from dealers picking up" for manufacturing equipment, says Van Cleave. "Those already in it are keeping pace."