Building and Construction, Feature, Operations, V4I5

Shop Automation: An Overview

Wall framing shop. (A) Framing Table. (B) Tool Panel Bridge. (C) Free Standing Bridge Crane. (D) Electric Hoist. (E) Wall Panel Lift. (F) Skate Wheel Conveyor with Component Table for pre-assembly of window and door components. (Photo courtesy of Wasserman & Associates, Milford NE, and Builders Supply Company, Omaha, NE)

Does shop automation make sense for the shed building industry? Delivery trailers and installation equipment like The Mule have made the delivery process quicker and safer. Online shed visualizers are improving the customer experience and speeding up the sales process. Why not utilize production machinery to improve the building process?

The topic of shop automation is an interesting concept that covers a broad range of sub-topics including component manufacturing, machinery, material handling, and floor layout.

Automation is generally defined as, “the technique of making an apparatus, a process, or a system operate automatically.” Another definition is, “the use of largely automatic equipment in a system of manufacturing or other production process.”

In this series of articles, Shed Builder Magazine will explore varying degrees of automation as it pertains to the machinery, processes and tools that create efficiencies on the shop floor. Because automation involves and affects so many different areas of the building process more topics will be covered in future articles.

Automation can mean different things to different businesses. For some shed operations, automation might be achieved by simple upgrades in machinery and equipment. In another shed operation, automation could mean loading each shed model into drafting and design software for the first time so that modifications and adjustments can be made quickly and easily. Digitizing a shed design is a first step in setting up advanced, computerized machinery capable of reading and processing cut lists, wall panel configurations, and much more.

Yet another shed builder may choose to focus on the process of constructing a shed and ways to create more efficiency by departmentalizing functions that fit best with the builder’s skill set and level of experience.

The goal of automation should be to increase the output capacity of a shed-building operation—more sheds with the same or fewer workers.

Industrial up-cut saw. (Photo courtesy of A & L Paint/A & L Furniture, Rebersburg, PA)

With any change, however, there are bound to be complications. This could not be a truer statement given that many shed operations are rooted in the shop floor builder’s skill, experience and work ethic. Efficiency is mastered with long-term, hard-working employees. The nature of a shed building operation comprised of skilled carpenters and laborers utilizing basic pneumatic hand tools and common construction equipment is to be admired for its high level of output. Who can argue with an industry that has grown into the billions of dollars?

Introducing even one piece of machinery could disrupt the flow of raw materials through a shop and change how sheds are constructed, assembled, and moved between departments within the shop. Adapting to a new piece of equipment can mean a real change in mindset. This mindset will determine whether adding machinery will improve the building process or just slow it down. How your employees react will mean everything. Will they embrace newer, faster, safer ways or will they prefer to stick with how things have always been done?

Nevertheless, have you considered automating your shed building operation?

This just might change your mind. The SBCA (Structural Building Components Association) through its Framing the American Dream project constructed two 2,600-square-foot, ranch-style homes. One was stick built on site while the other was assembled from floor and roof trusses and wall panels, constructed off-site and delivered to the home’s location. While a home isn’t exactly a shed, basic frame building techniques are the same. The results of this project should cause a shed builder to reconsider automation. Here is a summary of the results that SBCA concluded from Framing the American Dream project.

  • A crew can frame two-and-a-half homes with structural components in the time it takes to stick frame one house.
  • It requires 25 percent more wood product to stick frame a structure than framing it with structural components.
  • Stick framing a house generates 30 times more jobsite waste than framing a house with structural components.

I can hear the detractors already saying, “The cost of machinery outweighs the benefit.” Maybe it does for a startup or smaller operation. But if operations are spread between multiple locations where entire sheds are being built there will be redundant functions like framing going on. Framing could be consolidated under one roof with advanced framing technology and equipment, with assembly and finish work at another location.

If you are looking to expand operations and there are no skilled laborers available, new techniques and processes could be the best way to expand your business.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more job openings than unemployed persons as reported at the end of June 2018. Put another way, there is less than one unemployed person per job opening. The chance of recruiting skilled carpenters and those with experience in the building trades will become increasingly harder.

But regardless of your current state of constructing sheds, there are benefits to automation equipment that can’t be overlooked. Efficiency, simplicity, consistent (quality) output not to mention safety are features that equipment manufacturers have engineered into their machinery. Automation equipment has been embraced by truss manufacturers, manufactured and modular housing companies and more recently by home builders such as Katerra whose mission is to deliver better, faster and cheaper building projects.

Here are a few areas that shed builders might want to consider for increasing productivity.


Although these are two separate functions, integrating them into one system will increase production tremendously as well as reduce waste and mis-cuts. Advanced measuring systems with automatic adjustments and pre-set stops connected to a cutoff saw creates a fast, accurate, repeatable, and safe cutting station. Electric motors move the stops based on a cut length setting, or select from stored cut lists in a computer interface. Some measuring systems can be connected directly to an industrial cutoff saw for an even greater degree of automation.

Advanced measuring system. (Photo courtesy of TigerStop, Vancouver, WA)

Little training is necessary for operators to become highly productive. Choose the level of automation and features built into this equipment that fits with your needs, budget, and end goal.


Wall framing machinery covers everything from assembling a stud wall to nailing sheathing, stapling hardboard insulation, and routing rough openings for doors and window. Wall framing machinery can be very complex.

Most manufacturers offer multiple versions with basic manual adjustments and settings while touting the benefits of computer aided machinery. There is no doubt that computer technology simplifies calculations and increases accuracy.

Some wall assembly machines feature squaring stop and clamps so panels are tight and true. Others offer preset stud locators at 16- and 24-inch on center.

Nail guns and tool carriages ride on a rail system running the length of the framing table. Operators can quickly line up the proper nail line and press a trigger to engage the nailer. Other nailing systems are completely automated with the push of a button.

Still other types of nailers are operated from a bridge above the table. The bridge nailer is a necessity when attaching sheathing or panel siding.

Material bridges are also common with wall framing machines. The bridge will travel the length of the table on rollers in a track. The machine operator never has to reach behind for raw material or leave his station in search of the next board. Everything is in front of the

operator increasing productivity by reducing wasted movements getting a handle on a stud.

The same concept applies when nailing down sheathing or panel siding. Panels are easily pulled down from the bridge above without the machine operators ever missing a beat because materials are not at hand.

Some but not all framing machines are built to fit the size and trends found in home building. For a shed builder, taking any steps to automate the frame building process should include analysis of the overall shop layout including available space, the flow of raw materials, as well as how work in progress moves between departments.

The degree to which automation can be achieved in a shed-building operation is a discretionary decision based on need, budget, and end goal.

Rod Wasserman of Wasserman & Associates in Milford, Nebraska, and Jay Halteman of Wood Truss Systems in Muncie, Indiana, contributed to this article.

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