Last week we had the pleasure to meet with Lauri Tuulberg, CEO of the Welement AS.
Welement is a brand new house factory in Tartu (Estonia), established in 2017 as part of Rand & Tuulberg Group, of one of the most successful construction companies in the Country.
Welement house factory was built with efficiency and quality in mind and inside the factory you can find top-of-the-line German equipment.
After almost one year of operations, we asked Lauri a few questions to better understand how automation can improve the production process of prefabricated wooden houses.
Andrea Bronzini: Lauri, about one year ago you started Welement, which is today the most advanced house factory in Estonia. You invested in a sophisticated semi-automated production line.
Can you explain why do we want to introduce more automation in the production process?
Lauri Tuulberg: to us at Welement the main benefit of automation is not productivity but consistency. Machines can provide consistent quality, they don’t need rest, they don’t need vacations, they don’t mind working 24/7. They only need commands, raw materials and energy.
Then again consistency of quality is actually closely linked with productivity.
Consistency can boost your quality by much, especially when you manufacture complex products as houses.
Andrea Bronzini: so Welement mainly takes advantage of automation to produce high-quality house parts (elements), interesting.
You say that high productivity is not the main goal of automation… can you explain better and tell us which are the main misconceptions about automation?
Lauri Tuulberg: one of the main misconceptions is that automation/robotization magically increases productivity and you can get rid of humans.
While it is true that you can operate a line with fewer workers, you are going to need better more skilled ones to handle the task.
At the moment most automated lines are more like advanced tools. Tools need to be operated by humans. Sophisticated tools need to be operated by smart humans.
It is not so much about the robots themselves that increase productivity but how harmoniously humans work with the robots, how high is the quality of the commands, how are stoppages tracked and handled, how is overall information handled, what is the quality of the raw materials.
Manufacturing houses is not a simple process. Automation can actually increase the labor costs in the beginning because you will need highly skilled engineers to learn the command skills.
Introducing automation, the focus shifts from the shop floor to the computer desk and CAD/CAM software.
The other misconception is that you need a standard product to use automation.
Whereas it is true that you achieve much higher efficiency with a repetitive operation, the productivity increase has less to do with automation. There will be a similar increase with manual labor.
What is different is that you will need much less effort to set up the commands if there is a similar product. And if there is repetition, you basically can copy and what is even more important learn and improve the commands.
Anyway, adopting well-defined procedures allows to set up different commands to handle situations where the products change every time.
Who thinks that for a production line to work one must have always the same product, probably invested in the hardware (the line) but did not invest in the process, in the procedures and in the know-how.
Andrea Bronzini: which kind of automation can help production of houses and how?
Lauri Tuulberg: the right degree of automation should come from the products and business strategy.
Of course the general rule of thumb would be that the more you have automation, the less you have flexibility.
Probably in most cases, a semi-automatic setup is the best. People are imperfect but the machines are just as smart as the commands from the operator are.
If you increase automation, you need to invest in your people and procedures just as much or even more. Many Producers overlook this fact.
Andrea Bronzini: you said that automation shifts the focus from the factory floor to the office… can you explain the importance of design and other office activities to support automation in a house factory?
Lauri Tuulberg: traditionally, we know that for designing houses we need Civil and Structural Engineers.
But we have a new house factory and we cannot afford the luxury of thinking traditionally.
So we ask ourselves: what kind of engineers do we actually need for the automation – IT or Civil or Graphical Designers?
The construction structural calculations are relatively simple compared to computer AI algorithms and other sophisticated software systems.
In the future, we might need engineers who are more designers, who are productive with 3D visualization and working with information.
It is quite certain that in the near future the parametric structural design will handle most of the engineering and humans will have to focus more on designing the buildings. It doesn't matter if these building are huge apartments or small single-family houses… the design automation will handle both with ease and we will be able to get the same design quality on large and small projects.
Also, it might be that the next civil engineers will need a lot more coding skills. Maybe just to adjust the machine CAM/CAD logic sequences, helping machines to find the sweet spot to maximize productivity.
We might think of future engineers like beekeepers, maintaining the robots and looking after them so they can do their job.
The one thing that is true already today is that the design must be very detailed and flawless.
Robots cannot think, they just execute commands. The commands given by the operators are based on the design received from the office and if the operator cannot interpret the design correctly, he cannot give the right commands to the machines.
Today the major bottleneck in the production of wooden prefabricated houses is not automation on the factory floor but design.
At present, there is a lack of skilled designers who have been specifically trained to work with machines. This slows down the entire process. We hope our Universities will be able to fix this in the near future.
We want to thank Lauri for sharing with us his point of view on automation and for opening our eyes on the fact that investing in hardware does not mean being more productive or more efficient.
We share the same opinion that a major upgrade in software and labor skills (both on the factory floor and in the offices) is absolutely necessary for the Prefab Wooden Homes Industry to thrive.
We see a bright future is coming.