Housing

Lots of hoopla but where are all the robots?

Fletcher Building’s brand new “offsite home manufacturing facility” could be producing two homes a day within a couple of years. That’s a small street every fortnight. But for the moment, this high-tech factory is, somehow, underwhelming.

Psst. Don’t mention the “P” word. 

“Prefab”. Except to say: “This is not prefabrication.”

Certainly not. 

This is “offsite home manufacturing”. Fletcher’s $15 million “Clever Core” factory, opened this week, will produce walls, roofs and floors for individual homes, which will then be assembled - and crucially customised - at the construction site. 

Building a house will take less than half the time of a traditional home and produce only one black sack-worth of waste, the company says. When up to speed, it will push out 500 homes a year.

Sixty or so guests, including two top-notch ministers and a mayor, assembled in the Wiri factory, wearing sexy hard hats and high vis vests. 

For everyone, it was a high-hoopla opportunity to see how offsite home manufacturing, 2019-style, differs from its unloved, unwanted predecessor. To see what “New Zealand’s largest purpose-designed, offsite home manufacturing facility” looks like.

There was a video and several speeches. Toilets - check. Health and safety - check. 

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff was keen to take a bit of the high-tech construction kit home for the farm. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Housing Minister Dr Megan Woods told us that newly re-elected Mayor Phil Goff whispered under his hard hat that he wouldn’t mind having a few of these bits of cool building kit for the farm. Note to Fletcher Building: make sure they are nailed down.

Steve Evans, CEO of Fletcher Building's residential and development division, told us that “this is not a factory where we build prefab buildings”.

Also, that “we are not seeking customers that want cheap and cheerful”. 

Fletcher Building CEO Ross Taylor told us there was “no other factory of this scale where you can build core components for a home in just 24 hours”.

Fletcher Building CEO Ross Taylor at the opening of "NZ's largest offsite home manufacturing facility". Photo: Nikki Mandow

Which is I’m sure true, although Christchurch building companies Mike Greer Homes and Spanbild did open a $14 million purpose-built prefabrication factory in Rolleston in 2015. That factory was purpose-built to assemble walls, floors and roofing panels to make homes after the earthquakes. 

At the time, Spanbild chief executive Peter Jensen said the Concision factory was capable of producing up to 1000 buildings per year. It never reached that volume; the Concision website says that in the last four years the factory has delivered “over 500 houses, five multi-storey apartment buildings with nearly 100 units, and many schools and offices”. 

And Spanbild/Mike Greer got then-Prime Minister John Key to cut the ribbon.

Where are the robots?

Then we headed off on a deeply underwhelming factory tour.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Fletcher’s Clever Core facility, but I suspect my anticipation was way too influenced by videos of high-tech automated car and food production plants - all robots and fast-moving, uplifting music.

It was hugely unrealistic to be expecting something like the Volkswagen factory in Emden. Photo: Getty Images

The Wiri plant isn’t like that - even without the music. Not yet anyway. 

It’s a vast factory, to be sure, but there is a lot of unused space (expansion potential). It’s eerily quiet and short on high-tech. 

Fletcher Building has the space to expand capacity beyond the existing 500 homes a year. Photo: Nikki Mandow

True, there’s a German precision sawing machine tucked at one end. It looks like a super-sized white oven, with a big window, a computer screen on the outside and lots of high-tech sawing and drilling tools inside. That piece of kit - a Weinmann Beamteq B-560 - cuts a piece of wood to exactly the right shape and puts holes in the right place. 

It’s very cool, although a guy with gloves has to take the finished wood off the end.

The Weinmann high-precision saw is a cool piece of kit. Price tag: $1 million. Photo: Nikki Mandow

There are also some vacuum lifting devices for picking up windows and gib board, a few rollers, and a large, automatic stapling machine.

But for the time being, the production line feels largely manual, with a bit of whizzbang gadgetry on the side to help with sawing and lifting. Workers slide wood into and out of the machines, nail structures together, and manually fix windows in place. 

As sales pick up, more of the plant will be automated, CEO Ross Taylor says. Photo: Nikki Mandow

And for the moment, roof structures aren’t even made onsite - they are trucked in from PlaceMakers Frame and Truss, a different part of the Fletcher group. And the mid-flooring sections (for two-storey homes) are put together manually.

One reason for the lack of automation, is that these machines are expensive - the Beamteq B-560 cost Fletcher $1 million on its own. Weinmann nirvana, as shown in this sci-fi promotional video, would be very costly indeed. 

And New Zealand is not only a small place, but still at an early stage with offsite manufacturing.

“In some countries, up to 80 percent of new homes are prefabricated offsite,” Minister Woods said at the launch event. “In New Zealand it’s 10 percent.”

Even when fully operational, only 25-30 percent of Fletcher Building’s homes will be produced at the Clever Core facility, Evans says. That still leaves 75-80 percent built the old way - presumably with the old skip loads of waste materials.

Fletcher Building group CEO Ross Taylor says as volumes build up, so will the level of automation at the Wiri factory. At low volumes, it’s more cost-effective to do some processes manually, he says. But that will change.

“We have a  big factory here. We are hoping we can produce a lot more than 500 homes a year here, and we will progressively automate. Some parts of the automation process don’t get to break even until you get beyond 500.”

Employees still get to use traditional trade tools, like a nail gun. Photo: Nikki Mandow.

Meanwhile Fletcher is looking at the potential for other modular factories to feed construction projects - one for steel-based structures and one for high-rise wooden buildings. The latter might be possible at the Wiri plant, but Taylor anticipates Clever Core will eventually use all its capacity for 1-3 storey homes.

Evans says the first 150 or so prefabricated homes will feed Fletcher’s own construction projects, but once the factory is “humming”, they will start marketing them further afield. 

Bryce Redman, design manager for Metlifecare, and also on the Wiri tour, says the retirement village company is interested in offsite manufacturing for smaller villas, terraced housing and even for bigger communal buildings on its village sites. 

“A percentage of our stock has to be redeveloped as it becomes run-down and we can’t have construction sites for too long in the middle of a village,” he says. 

“Also waste minimisation is important to us.”

Ross Taylor says the Wiri factory is just a small part of a total of $1 billion the company will put into its New Zealand business over the next five years, including significant investments in waste streams.

This includes re-purposing its Golden Bay Cement works in Whangarei to use old tyres as a fuel source, a $250 million plus investment in a Winstone Wallboards factory, which will be able to recycle used plasterboard and offcuts, and a commitment to recycle plastics waste into plastic pipes.

Construction waste makes up approximately 40 percent of the rubbish sent to landfill in New Zealand, Taylor says.

“Waste streams from the building industry will be valuable. We’ve got to look at ways to capture the waste.”

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