Building and Construction, Feature, Operations, V6I4

Inventions, Innovation, and Automation

(Photo courtesy of Digital Buggu from Pexels)

Shed builders have unique needs in the shop or on-site. 

Measuring, cutting, framing—it all needs to be done accurately and in a cost-effective manner. 

What some builders may not consider is that there are automation solutions for their unique needs. 

The types of automation equipment offered are as varied as the types of businesses in the shed-building industry—and so are the benefits builders can gain from automation.


The main benefits for shed builders in including automation in their shops are varied. Implementing automation speeds up production, maximizes efficiency, reduces labor costs, and addresses reliability issues, according to Lowell Tuma with the Triad division of the Merrick Machinery Company. 

“We offer automated wall panel equipment, utilizing computer-driven nailing bridges and CNC-driven machinery,” he explains. “Our advanced equipment minimizes manual labor traditionally needed for wall-framing and sheathing processes. And our equipment reduces fatigue on employees and simplifies the building process.”

Tuma says the question may come up as to whether the size of the shop matters in terms of automating a shop, including if there are different processes that may be automated depending on size. 

“In the end, automation comes in all sizes, even the smallest shops can benefit from automation tremendously due to low labor operation and consistent accuracy,” he says.

“What builders might want to keep in mind when considering adding automated equipment to their shops is that automation is often sold as a turn-key set up. And while partially true, there are processes and material flow obstacles that need to be overcome to fully take advantage of the efficiency that automated machinery offers.”

One objection builders often have with automated equipment is cost.

“While automated equipment can be a premium price, it will typically give a faster return on investment dollars than any manual equipment,” Tuma shares. “And I’ll add that we have all types of equipment for every level, something of a stair-step approach.”

Triad has been innovating automation in the wall panel industry for over 60 years, according to Tuma. 

“We also build relationships with clients and continue those relationships even after the sale with our fully capable parts and service department,” he says. “I credit much of our success to the fact that we’re definitely a one-stop shop.”

The Hain Company also offers an automated measuring device that can either be battery-powered or plugged into an AC outlet, as well as run on a converter, says Leonard Hain. 

“Sometimes sales can be a bit challenging for us,” he says. “With questions such as ‘How does that thing work?’ and ‘How’s this going to help me?’ the unspoken query may actually be ‘How can it cost that much money?’”

Like Tuma, Hain points to the quick return on investment his equipment offers builders.

“The return on investment is also fairly quick, depending on what a particular client’s labor rate may be,” he says. “But if someone is paying $20 to $25 an hour to their employee or employees, the payback on one of our measuring systems is nearly instantaneous.”

And sometimes the only way some potential customers can see their product is for a transport driver to have a cell phone handy. 

“We have had people send us a scrap of paper with nothing on it but a name and address, and they just want us to send them more information,” shares Hain. “We do the best we can in these situations.”

Dalen Byler of Cal Craft Builders was unsure if the investment in the system was going to be worth it as a company expenditure. 

“But when we received the equipment, we changed our method of operation,” he points out. “Before, when we needed to make a cut, we cut our pieces as needed.

“Now after getting this product, we changed into a setup where we now have one worker who is always cutting out the segments we need. This way all the needed pieces are ready from start to finish. Doing it that way saves some time. It does definitely save time per shed.”

Byler emphatically likes the machine. 

“It is handy,” he says. “Now we don’t have to run up and down the saw and be setting it by hand. The employee we have using it unquestionably prefers the system to what we had before.

“The accuracy is great—on the 32nd, measurement-wise—and if the setup gets unintentionally bumped hard by a board it will reset itself to where it needs to be,” shares Byler. “The Hain Company is only a couple of hours from us. This replacement for our former saw stop has been a great addition to our operations.”

One of Shed Time’s owners, Calvin Schlabach, currently uses their Hain Company product on the saw that cuts much of the material they work with—except for that which is used for framing. 

“We find that the Hain Measuring System is accurate, quick, and it is an especially well-built machine,” says Schlabach.

“I am sure we do save some time using this versus a manual stop device, where you must walk back and forth to do the adjustments. We put this machine into use on the first of March of this year, some three months of use are now under our belt.”

They admit it is a fairly pricey machine. However, once they had it up and running and starting using it, they tended to forget the price tag.

“At this point, time will tell how long it lasts,” adds Schlabach. “But if it keeps on working as it is, with minimal maintenance, it is worth a lot to us as well. If something is satisfactory you tend to forget the initial cost. 

“We discovered the product in a Shed Builder Magazine advertisement, were intrigued because we were wondering what could be done to speed up the process involving all the saw stops.”

By just using the slide scale, it is quite a bit more simple than using a razor gauge where operators must punch a lot of numbers in or there are different manual stop systems. The latter often involving flip stops with presets.

“Our problem was too many measurements clustered together, stops all close together,” says Schlabach. “You cannot have every one of them on a different flip stop and then have to walk down there and change the setting each time. With all those angles this is the best for taking care of all that stuff.

“I will add that with this system you can stack pieces right on top of each other. Also, you can’t make them go in front of each other once you use their gain stop. But so far so good with this great addition to our shop.”


IFAB makes equipment for building rafters for the shed industry. Several companies build presses for crafting the truss plates for building the rafter. 

“We do this as well and I think everyone takes a little bit different approach, even targeting a different market,” explains Glen Yost, IFAB owner.

“We build a saw system, that, as far as I know, is the only such saw instrumentation in the industry. We’re the only company that produces a saw system for the shed-building industry that is air-controlled or operated, and by setting the saw at the length they want and putting two pieces on top of each other with one motion, all three saws come on and you cut all for pieces for a large style rafter.

“This increases accuracy because you are not always simply pushing a board against a stop and cutting it, with ensuing result being subject to error. I built the equipment awhile back; we’ve been improving it over the years. And we have also sold a lot of systems during those same years.”

They have a website with videos showing how their equipment works—and accuracy increases. Their competition has adjustable jigs, and this is great for shops doing a lot of custom work, where every shed is different. 

“The company I build a lot of equipment for goes with the high-volume approach, so I do a rigid jig for each size or style of barn,” Yost points out. “One thing we do use is a standard miter saw, so if they have a problem, they can go to their local hardware store and simply buy another one. It is not high-priced expensive specialty equipment that is involved in replacement. We just use commonly available equipment.”

Yost points out that if a builder is considering automated equipment, it is not going to work if they have four different types of crews. 

“I feel that this push to keep working with crews is going to keep things from getting automated in the near term,” he shares.

And this will go on until they start going to more of an assembly-line model system. The local shop in their area builds buildings up to 16 by 52. 

“That’s going to take a lot more time than an 8 by 12,” says Yost. “And if you are using an assembly-line process, to make that efficient you are going to have to build a bunch of 8 by 12s each week and plan things so that the 16 by 52 isn’t holding things up because the larger structure, of course, is going to take more time to go through the line.

“In the end, you may finish up with a bunch of 8 by 12s that are just inventory. They are not sold because you were trying to be efficient in an assembly line.”

Their idea is to build 100 at a time of one particular size and style. With a rigid jig, it is perhaps not as convenient to set up, but there is not as much operator error. Each jig is rigid—not adjustable for pitch; however, they are adjustable for length. 

The company just builds one that goes from an 8-foot wide to a 16-foot wide; they can build 100 rafters at a time. 

This shop can also build the racks, and they put the rafters on by using a moveable system employing either a forklift or casters. Their rigid jig means they will be identical even if the length varies. 

“Adjustable jigs are only as accurate as the worker setting them,” adds Yost. “Customizing equipment means there is going to have to be something versatile involved.

“I have two distinct customer bases, one is for high-volume, lower-priced sheds, and the other is family-run outfits with plans drawn up and which are all different. These are a lot more expensive. One company even got away from cookie-cutter products by offering different exterior colors though the frame is still mass-produced.”


Riehl Steel has a truss press and birdsmouth notcher, as well as a door press, in its lineup of equipment for the wood construction industries. 

“The birdsmouth notcher and door press are machines that are unique to our business here,” explains Darin Riehl, owner. “The birdsmouth cut can be done any different way, from a skill saw to a radial arm saw. Ours offers a safer approach and system, able to do its work quite quickly, repeating this action swiftly—100 percent automated, though of course, you must feed the machine. 

“Other than that it does a consistent cut. The angle and the depth can be changed through use of a small crank handle, while a digital readout (DRO) indicates that the equipment is about to cut at the specified angle. And it is also easily adjustable.”

The angles that are typically done are in the range of 15 to 45 degrees with an inch and a half to an inch and 5/8 depth of cut. Efficiency, accuracy, and time to do the work and all come into play with this equipment and what it can accomplish. 

This equipment is quite versatile in its ability to be used in both large and small shops. 

“Size of shop is not really something that matters,” adds Riehl. “My dad has been in the woodworking industry for some 40 to 50 years, building quite a few different machines—not necessarily for shed building as much as for a variety of industries.

“The design seems to work well. We try not to make things too complicated with our machines. This is true, especially for our notching equipment. It is a precise easy way to get a consistent cut place in the component, the notch.”

They decided against patenting their equipment, due mainly to worries in how complicated the process tends to be, as well as the issue of maintaining the patent once it’s obtained. 

“We have a strong interest in both keeping the machines going out there to our customers and at a low price as well. In three to four years of selling them, we have only had a few cancellations, due mainly to the current economic situation.

“This is a slow time of year anyway, not a time of big changes. So the current economic woes have not really hit us quite yet.”

Technically, the equipment that Mark Lambright, Golden Rule Machine owner, builds is not automated equipment as much as it is semi-automated.

“What I build with my system is rafter presses, which I target to the shed industry,” explains Lambright. “Our presses provide rafter plates which are no longer assembled on the floor. Instead, we have the system set up to where you have multiple presses, say for a gambol roof.

“Pressing and joint assembly happen simultaneously. Five, four, or six joints in any given rafter are applied to be assembled all at once. We were not the first company to build a press but did take what others had on an elementary level, up to the next level. The result has been the development of a system which is very configurable and fast. Setups can be switched, rafter style-wise. And everything can be ready to go in a minute and a half or less.”

Lambright tries to create a system that is attractive to the smaller shed companies, trying to hit the sweet spot. 

“We are not an entry-level machine, but not a $40,000 to $50,000 automated machine, either—equipment only a select few may be able to use. But even something that is semi-automated still takes an operator to run all day long.”

In the end, Lambright feels that his system helps builders to hit their sweet spot. 

“Medium-sized companies will have to have two employees without our equipment, but with the machinery, you can reduce the number of man-hours of work going into any given set of rafters,” he says. “And over the course of a year, what is the cost savings of having one less employee? Typically labor is the most expensive part of any business.”

Lambright asserts that he’s not really a salesman, but he does enjoy demonstrating his equipment and letting potential customers decide if this is something they can use for their situation.

“We don’t present facts or figures or return-on-investment data. We don’t generate that and hold it in people’s faces. But instead, we much prefer that customers making those observations come up with their own conclusions. In the industry as a whole, builders watch each other and pick up ideas.

“I like to have word of mouth as my best promoter and would dare say that across the industry there is satisfaction when it works that way too. One word-of-mouth contact established through proven success leads to another.

“Yes, I still get a lot of calls from those who feel this machinery is beyond their price range, just not worth it. In those cases, I do not try to talk them out of their opinion. There always comes a time when you cannot change someone’s mind.”

Many factors come into play in automating a shop. It’s important to decide just what your needs are and then research what is available out there, and the true costs involved, to figure out if automation is a good fit for your business.       

Remember, though, once you get past the initial cost of automation, the return on investment can be quick and give you a leg up in the shed-building industry.

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