On 29 September we visited Huskey Truss and Building Supply, a highly-automated building components manufacturer in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. According to Jackie Crutcher, the plant manager, Huskey’s motivation to automate its processes is driven primarily by anticipated return on investment. Other factors incentivizing these changes include Nashville’s booming development, which has them so busy they are not entertaining new customers, and considerable challenges in maintaining a reliable workforce. While clearly demonstrating the power of automation technologies, the visit also raised questions about the value of human labor in the construction process and whether or not such mechanisms, at their most advanced, can be harnessed in service of architectural expression or whether they will enforce their own logics that favor more of the same.
Each workstation at Huskey is equipped with a computer, and large screens displaying the components in production hang above many of the workstations. The plant employs around 110 people, but the labor turnover is significant and finding replacements can be difficult. As a result, Huskey employs automated machinery and assembly methods that simplify tasks or require fewer people to operate.
The company began its transition toward automation just a few years ago, and while most manufacturers have too few orders to justify the expense of the equipment, Huskey experienced a significant benefit right away. One saw which cost the company about $150,000 had a less than 9-month return on investment and requires a lower skill level to operate than the saw which previously accomplished the same task. As the machine cuts each piece of lumber, it makes additional cuts in the excess to create pre-cut floor truss members from what is often considered waste or would typically require an additional workstation to produce.
Having display screens throughout the facility helps to quality-control the production and helps Jackie to better manage the facility. The amount of linear feet of lumber cut and in production is updated live on multiple screens, so that he can check the productivity level from most locations within the facility. If the cut number falls too close to or behind the assembly volume, Jackie knows that something must be adjusted to maintain productivity at the assembly stations.
Huskey is one of the few manufacturers with consistent wall panel production, enough that panels account for about half of the plant production. Each panel or truss passes through multiple workstations before leaving the facility, enabling the correction of most errors prior to on-site delivery.