schedules,” says Hodges. “When the guy calls and yells at [the trades] because they are not in the house they should be, and their response is to send a couple of people over to the other house to do something, that messes up both jobs.”

Hodges says K. Hovnanian is countering with a centralized scheduling center where all project status is updated at 3 p.m. daily and matched against resources for the next day. “We send out electronic schedules and look-aheads,” he says. “One guy can schedule 10 communities that way,” he says.

Implementing centralized scheduling still has issues. Although the Primavera-based system can take electronic updates from handheld devices uploaded to computers in job trailers or transmitted wirelessly, other information flows in by handwritten notes faxed from the field and still has to be entered manually. Connectivity also can be an issue, and transmission robustness is another. “We have huge amounts of data and people have to be disciplined to use it,” Hodges says. “It’s an amazing thing. It requires such discipline. It’s hard to execute over time.”

Still, Hodges says, K. Hovnanian, like Pulte, is convinced that technology holds many answers to cutting costs and improving efficiency. “I just got the go-ahead to hire a full-time director of building sciences. It’s a sea change in that we finally realized we need to make a serious investment in exploring building technology to increase efficiency, reduce cost and increase structural durability of our homes,” Hodges says.

Panelize. Automated cutting and routing machines trim panels, (below) and cut openings.

Toll Brothers also is investing. According to Manfred Marotta, vice president in charge of Toll Integrated Systems, the company’s technology arm. Toll has used automated production equipment for assembling components for about a dozen years, but the investment in tools, technology and expertise is increasing. Recent hires include an industrial engineer from Ford Motor Co. and an aerospace engineer to work to improve structural and mechanical processes.

In the last week of 2005, the covers came off Toll’s latest expansion plan—construction of a new 180,000 sq-ft production plant in Knox, Ind., to open in late 2006. And Toll’s other plants in Emporia, Va., and Morrissville, Pa., are being expanded and modernized. All will produce home materials packages with some pre-fabricated components, including trusses, panels, finishing detail and some complex roof elements. The new plant initially will turn out about 1,500 homes per year. Annual production at the other plants is being boosted to about 6,000 homes each.

Plans for the Pennsylvania plant also include installation of two robots from Kawasaki Robotics (USA) Inc., Wixom, Mich., “We’ll start programming them to do some of the mundane things—sub-components for the wall-panel line, supplying parts for the smaller trusses, removing material,” says Marotta. “The more we can automate material handling, the better. People are not available in the numbers they used to be to do the tasks necessary to put a house together.”

Auto form. Plans for each house also drive stud-forming machine at PHS plant to fold, punch and package, house by house, plan by plan.

Component manufacturing technology is not just for the homebuilding giants. Petrides Homes LLC, a New York City-based custom homebuilder that builds three or four homes a year, is not left behind when it comes to use of panelized elements and the beauties of fast weathering-in. Owner George Petrides, who has made a study of homebuilding automation, turns to Conner Homes, Middlebury, Vt., for production and erection of shell components. Again, it takes three to five days to weather in, which Petrides says pays dividends in keeping materials dry and protected. “Cost savings are not that substantial, but the logistics are a heck of a lot easier, and you have a single purchase order and a dedicated framing crew that comes down and does the framing. It’s an interesting contrast. Pulte is doing it to produce homes 26,000 times a year more efficiently. I am doing it to do three homes a year more efficiently.”

Petrides adds, “What’s happening is important for the small guy and the huge guy. There is a misimpression that they are homebuilders. They are marketing companies and land developers. You’ve just got to think about it as a logistical operation. You’ve got to find plants that are willing to make chunks of a house for you, and then you go out and buy chunks.”

Keymark owner Dietzen fully agrees. He is in the start-up of his own sister company, a 55,000-sq-ft house-component production plant in Denver. He has plans to serve multiple builders as something between a lumber yard and a component factory. Dietzen is using his Keymark software to convert designs into engineered, factory-producible parts, and then cut, label and ship them as packages for on-site assembly. The panels can be assembled almost as fast on the floor deck at the jobsite as they can in the factory, he says.

“We think it’s the sweet spot,” says Dietzen. “We think we can still minimize material use, identify exactly how it goes together, but we are not shipping air and we are not burdening the panel with the cost of that plant machinery.”

On material savings on the frame, “we can cut costs by, conservatively, 6% to 8% on a dried-in house with all the sheathing,” says Dietzen. “In cycle time, we can easily save 10% of the framing time and eliminate the need for the framing crew to figure out the cutting, and eliminate the need for the layout man—the smart guy who guides the framers on where to put all those pieces.”

(Photos by Tom Sawywer for ENR)