Lean, green machine

Factory processes combine with lean-building principles to reduce waste at Edmonton builder’s plant

When's the last time you saw a corporate executive go dumpster diving?

Most likely never, unless you happen to be an employee at Landmark Group of Builders's Edmonton factory. Curt Beyer, vice-president of the home-building company, recalls the last time he had the urge to go stomping around the garbage bins.

"We just had a challenge go through our plant where we did what I call a dumpster dive," he explains. "One day, I saw the dumpster was really full of wood, so I asked some of the key people in the plant to join me in the dumpster."

Following this close inspection of the plant's trash, Beyer and his employees realized most of that waste didn't need to be there. The staff took that epiphany and turned it into a wood-recycling program called "You Make the Call." In the first week alone, waste produced by the plant dropped by 30 per cent.

"It seems kind of hokey, but when you come into our plant and you disrespect a piece of wood, somebody's going to clobber you," Beyer says.

The Landmark staff takes its recycling seriously, as does the company itself. Every day, workers at the Edmonton plant pass underneath a banner proclaiming the company's mission statement: "To be a major North American housing solutions provider for sustainability and for leading a revolution in the industrialization of housing construction."

Landmark's sustainability initiatives would be unthinkable without its efforts to industrialize construction. Over 40 employees work on the floor of the company's Edmonton plant, churning out the walls, floors and roofs that will later be assembled on site into a new home.

Auto inspiration

Turning home building into an assembly line production is something of a strange concept for many in Alberta still used to traditional construction methods. But Beyer finds his inspiration in the auto industry, the template for anyone looking to enter the world of factory manufacturing.

"If Ford came to your driveway and dropped a whole bunch of parts off on the concrete or on your driveway and said, ‘Call a mechanic and put this together,' would that make sense?" he asks. "So why does it make sense with your largest investment to throw a whole bunch of sticks on the ground and call somebody to put it together?"
Modular construction typically calls to mind an oversized Lego set. In contrast, Landmark's panellization process more closely resembles a 3-D jigsaw puzzle. While roofs are built in the factory as interlocking sections, the walls and floors come off the assembly line as individual panels to be joined together on site.

Such a system demands great accuracy-one overlong wall could easily throw everything off schedule-and so Landmark relies heavily on computed numerical control (CNC) machines to handle the cutting and nailing. To Beyer's ears, the rat-a-tat-tat of the twin automated nail guns sounds like a symphony, and he affectionately refers to the plant's CNC cutting machine as Gladys.

Clearly a busy girl, Gladys produces one 40-foot wall section every eight minutes. Later, these sections can be split into smaller segments, depending on what wall lengths are required. As the section travels down the line, insulation is added and windows are even installed.

Elsewhere in the plant, stair cages are built and floor panels are finished. On one side of the building, workers stand atop roof segments, working just a few feet off the ground and comfortably out of the elements. When completed, all of these parts will be loaded onto trailers and shipped to the job site, where they will be put together in four to six hours, Beyer says.

By bringing so much of the work out of the field and into a controlled environment, Landmark can more closely monitor the raw materials going into a project, as well as the finished parts coming out. "Because this is not IKEA, there can't be any parts left over," he says. "Everything that goes into the floor has to be there."

Getting lean

What Beyer is describing is more commonly called lean building. Landmark is an avid proponent of the lean approach, which pushes companies to standardize processes, slim inventories and cut out waste. Paul Dauphinee, Landmark's lean-manufacturing specialist, believes the marriage of "lean and green initiatives" is crucial to his company's sustainability efforts.

Beyer may cite Ford, but Dauphinee is apparently a Toyota man, at least when it comes to analogies. "Like a lot of companies, we've looked at the Toyota production system, and we've adapted what they've defined as waste and overproduction," he says. "We don't want to produce an item until we need to produce it."

This means reducing the amount of inventory-both finished product and raw materials-in the factory at any given time. The time it takes a wall panel to be constructed and hit the job site is typically one or two days. Raw materials, while offering a greater logistical challenge, also usually wait at the plant for no more than two days.

"Your suppliers have to be on board in a lean program, so they're part of how we schedule," Dauphinee says. Landmark's business requires materials come in just in time-early enough that everything is there when needed, but not so early that it starts collecting dust.

The company has forged strong relationships with suppliers in order to foster its lean strategy. For example, Landmark relies exclusively on All Weather Windows Ltd. for its windows, regularly meeting with the company to ensure everyone stays on schedule. According to Beyer, All Weather knows three weeks ahead of time before a panel is supposed to go through Landmark's shop.

Such precise timing can only be achieved after years of fine-tuning and learning from the inevitable mistakes that arise from any untried production process. Perhaps that's why Beyer's mantra when it comes to industrializing construction is to do it wrong until you can do it right.

"We used to buy a lot of windows," he says. "All Weather Windows is very wealthy on the amount of windows that we broke."

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