Are you concerned about productivity and labor in construction? Are you a leader in General Contracting, a Framer, Builder, or Developer? If so, this one's for you!
Get the wheels turning on how to Builder Smarter and start advancing our industry!
In this episode, we chatted with Co-Founders of Willams Robotics: Walker Harris, a Developer, Builder, Innovator, and Founder of Williams Robotics and Jeff Williams, an Aeronautical Engineer, with experience at NASA, in pharmacy robotics, Parata founder, and Founder of Williams Robotics. Learn more about Williams Robotics.
Many thanks to our partners at the University of Denver for their editing and post-production talents, specifically Lija Miller and Lisette Zamora-Galarza.
The University of Denver Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management, teaches the full life cycle of the built environment. From integrated project leadership skills to a cohesive understanding of the built environment ––experience the only school of its kind!
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Speaker 1 (00:06):
You're listening to the housing innovation Alliance podcast in partnership with the university of Denver's Franklin L burns school of real estate and construction management. The housing innovation Alliance is a nationwide community of game changers driving the future of home delivery through crowd accelerated innovation. We represent thought leaders from Burt to dweller with a focus on the production builders business environment.
Speaker 2 (00:34):
Hi, this is Dennis Steigerwald president of the housing innovation Alliance, and you're listening to our podcast series today. I'm joined by Walker Harris, Jeff Williams, cofounders of Williams robotics. How are you doing today, guys?
Speaker 1 (00:44):
Doing great. Thanks for having us.
Speaker 2 (00:47):
Yeah, thank you. Thanks for joining us. I'm excited to share your story, you know, after having the opportunity to visit your facility and meet with your team, um, down in the Carolinas, kind of get to see your technology in action. I think there's a lot that can be shared with our community, both from the experience that you've gone through in developing the solution set that Williams robotics coming up with, but then also share with us how you've come about, uh, getting to know each other and, and deciding to tackle innovation this space. So let's, let's start there. Tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you guys joined, joined up to take on innovation, because I think you're really a unique but perfect pair for this task. Yeah, I agree. Thanks Dennis. Um, yeah, so my background is in the construction side. So in high school, and even in college, I worked construction, just have a little bit of money to throw around and then, you know, but didn't figure it out.
Speaker 2 (01:38):
I went to college to work in construction. So after college, I went into the financial world for a little while and just quickly realized that I had a yearning to get back into the construction. So I, I did that after two years working in the financial section and you know, here I am sort of 28 years later then absolutely love and everything to do with the development and construction company that I have. And I've loved the big picture, but I haven't loved all the labor pains that we've had to deal with throughout that. But that's, that's a different topic for later. And you know, my years of building, I ran across some friends that were co-founders with Jeff and another, uh, venture. And they, they had an exit from that company and Jeff was, was ready to tackle another problem. And yeah, I guess before he didn't know that much about construction and his co founders put in, you know, they said, Hey, before you kind of go down the wrong path, we want you to connect with our friend Walker and just see what he thinks about your technology and your idea. And I was, as soon as I met him, I was just blown away at what his concept was. So I'll let Jeff kind of run it back through his background and his perspective on how we met.
Speaker 1 (02:48):
Yeah. Yeah. Thanks Walker for those kind words too. I appreciate that. I'm an engineer by training and really
Speaker 2 (02:54):
We have spent my entire career in, uh, in research and development 10 at NASA doing really basic research on satellites that orbit the earth. And towards the end of that, I made the logical transition into pharmacy automation and spent about 20 years there doing some really innovative stuff, the first robots to dispense prescriptions and then some ongoing developments of those. And to, I think our first machine was 11 feet by 40 feet. And our kind of our crowning achievement was the more functionality in a two foot by six foot footprint, you know, kind of worked through that industry, uh, had some great successes and decided to make the next logical transition into a construction building houses was really just looking around watching houses, being built, you know, guys, bunch of guys running over all over a bunch of two by fours and thought, gee, we've been doing that in the same way for 200 years. Maybe we can get robots to do that. So started looking at it and got hooked up with Walker and here we are today.
Speaker 3 (04:02):
All right, exciting. So, so when someone says it's a, you know, this is truly taking rocket science moving into pharma and then applying kind of all those lessons learned into an industry that's really been behind the eight ball when it comes to innovation for a number of years. So I think this is a, you know, a great journey that you can, you can take us on from your personal experiences. So, so tell me a little bit about what you've seen from the perspective of innovation, other industries, kind of what forced them to innovate and how that makes you think about innovation and in the construction industry,
Speaker 2 (04:34):
You know, the other industries, you kind of have to, you have to be specific to the industry, but kind of what was there tipping point or breaking point, and just said, okay, we've had enough, we've got to do something different. And I think there are different reasons behind, and maybe it was, they weren't able to meet those supply demands with their current setup or labor was too expensive, or there were too many restrictions around it. You know, if you think about the unions and their influence over the auto industry, probably had a lot to do with why they switched over to automation and robotics and innovation, certainly quality comes into play is we just can't achieve the level of quality with humans. So we have to find a different way to do it. And maybe Jeff could speak more to this from his pharmacy automation days, but also liability.
Speaker 2 (05:18):
You know, I've got to believe that human error from a pharmacist is probably a big liability and the pharmacy robot. Those would be my sort of examples of breaking points as to why other industries finally decided to take the leap. Jeff, you probably have some other thoughts to add to that. Yeah, yeah, sure. Walker, I, you know, it's, it's all those things it's it's to be able to do the work consistently do more of it with fewer people, you know, so there's a, a productivity and quality impacts of automation and you see that generally, and I think we can bring those benefits to the world of construction.
Speaker 3 (05:53):
So, you know, I kind of referenced earlier that, you know, the construction has been slow
Speaker 2 (05:58):
To adopt some of the new technologies it's been decreasing in productivity by some measures. So what I'm wondering is what is your take on, why has there been a lack of innovation in the construction space? That's, you know, it's, it's a good question and you can't point to one thing and say, Oh, that's the reason, but, you know, I guess I can think of a few things. So, so that one of the bigger ones is as builders, you know, we've, we've, we've all heard about the latest and greatest, you know, materials that are coming through the pipeline. And then we got to use this material and there's been some, some pretty, some pretty big, um, drop off in, in liability issues there. So some I can think of are synthetic stucco. You know, we went crazy use of synthetic stucco in the nineties only to find out later that it had a lot of moisture issues and into, into the houses, same thing with the polic polybutylene piping, with the plumbing and on and on.
Speaker 2 (06:45):
So we've, as an industry, we've been burned a lot by materials that cost us a lot of money to sort of get out of that. Another, another reason is that our highs and lows sort of the cyclical nature of our business are so high when they're high and they're so low when they're low and it happens pretty quickly. The shift does. So it's kind of like when we're at the top of the mountain and we're wondering, how are we going to get all this stuff built? We don't really have time to think about innovation and then the other extreme would have happened quickly and we're at the bottom and we have plenty of time, but we're scared about the future, or maybe we're scared about our cashflow. You know, we just hunker down and we don't innovate at that point. You know, I've been in this business for 28 years or so.
Speaker 2 (07:22):
And I say in the beginning, third of my career, there was pretty abundant labor out there. So we could always just, you know, like we always said, we just throw more toolbelts at the problem. We would just hire more people, bring more people on and kind of keep up with the patient. And I just, that, that worked 20 years ago, but now it's just, doesn't seem to be a viable solution. And then if you fast forward and look in the future, I think that situation is only going to get worse. So, you know, and I feel like we're kind of as an industry, a little bit asleep at the wheel where we were just, we think there's this wave of, of, of reliable flavor, just going to come riding over the Hill, ready to kick ass and take names and it's just not happened. So it's time that we accept that and sort of control our own destiny and start, you know, moving down the research and development path and dismiss innovation that will, that will make an impact on our, on our industry. Jeff, you have anything to add to that?
Speaker 4 (08:12):
Yeah. Yeah. I think, you know, the construction industry is really interesting from the standpoint that the people doing it are really good at converting cheap land, into expensive land by putting a house on it. And the day to day pressures of that are something that they deal with well and are, are measured and rewarded for doing that. Well. And so when you start talking about R and D frankly, you're, you're talking about a whole different mindset, it's sort of a, a mysterious world of, you know, well, how did that iPhone happen? You know, just one day I was, it wasn't there and the next day I could buy it. Well, you know, you didn't see the 10 years of research and development that went into it. And that mystery, I think perhaps is something that's uncomfortable for the folks that live construction day to day.
Speaker 3 (09:07):
Yeah. So you, you, you both kind of alluded to something I want to want to talk about a little further. So there, there's this concept around research and development for the industry and, and Jeff, do you have a background that, you know, with aeronautics and pharmaceuticals, you know, that was, that was part of the game right. Day in and day out. So what does R and D mean to Williams robotics as an organization and what do you think it needs to mean for our industry?
Speaker 4 (09:31):
Yeah, I'll go ahead and take that one, you know, so we use the term R and D you know, everybody's heard it, I think maybe it's best to look at it as R then D so you do this research and typically that's to uncover some basic fact, you know, is the earth round, and then you go further and do the development. And this, this is the uncertain as the research. It's how do you take that fact and do something worthwhile with it, circumnavigating the world. It's sort of a piecewise process that you move through the steps as they let you move through. The development part is perhaps the hardest and most frustrating, but it's also the most important because that's when you get to the real world of, of achieving the goal that you wanted to achieve.
Speaker 2 (10:23):
Yeah. My, in my perspective, I'll, I'll, I kind of like Jeff, you talk as a reference to the iPhone. You know, it took 10 years or however long it took. And I also, you know, in our industry where we deal with wood and not perfect materials, um, that will say if it's going to be hard, it's going to take a lot longer than we think. And so we really need to get going on it. That would be my parting words on the R and D is, you know, it's just going to, it's going to be harder than we think take over than we think. So we could be better get going because the labor is just not there and it's not coming back. So we've got to do something different.
Speaker 3 (10:54):
Yeah. All right. I want to build on that for a minute, because, you know, you said something earlier on, you know, part of the reason for the lack of innovation in the space is because of the way it's organized and it's because of the risk profile and the risk reward ratio just hasn't been there in the past for organizations that are building homes. Recently, we had George Casey on one of our market engagement activities, which we call coffee talks and, you know, and he talked about some of the cultural and structural changes that had to take place within organizations to enable or empower innovation. You know, it was kind of along the lines of, until innovation becomes important to the CEOs and the upper management and is mandated by boards. It's just not going to succeed. So I wonder if you had, do you have any thoughts on from your conversations with your peers and with other leaders in the industry about where we're at with this and what kind of progress we're making?
Speaker 2 (11:46):
Yeah. I remember when George said that and it really resonated with me, you know, I think he's exactly right until it becomes important from top down. I do think it's just gonna be a nice thing to talk about, but will the proper amount of allocation of resources and success. So I think he's absolutely right. One of the facts there's the housing demand will continue to rise in our country and that's even before we'll see a higher demand for housing, but yet the ability to deliver that demand is decreasing. So that gap is just growing every day, every month, every year. And until I personally think that innovation is going to help us get rid of the gap, at least close the gaps. So I think he's absolutely right. Yeah. And you know, to the culture that the CEO is responsible for it, I think that's just essential that he or she can convince the people that are actually doing the research and development that it's okay to fail, that it's not going to be measured by a calendar. It's a longterm view. You have to be comfortable, but your, your job is safe that, you know, you're not trying to promise an exact result by a certain time. Failure is okay, actually, okay. To the point of being necessary. And it's really up to the CEO to create a culture where research and development can succeed.
Speaker 3 (13:13):
I couldn't agree with you more. And I think that, you know, for those, for our audience listening out there, do you have any thoughts on some first steps or some incremental steps we can start to take towards heading in the right direction here? Yeah,
Speaker 2 (13:25):
For me, I feel like, you know, a lot of the big companies and big players in our industry, you know, they are allocating a lot of their capital and resources to the next piece of raw land. That's what feeds the machine. I understand that, but I also feel like that some of those resources could be allocated towards innovation. Now I'm not by any means saying all, but just, you know, rather than 20 million this year in bad land deals yeah. And ask the right questions, get the right people behind it. Don't, don't punish missing a schedule or, or, um, performing like your, your, uh, your land development guy, uh, you know, have some sense of urgency, but, um, you know, be doing the right things, try, try to head down the, in the right direction with the right people.
Speaker 3 (14:15):
Yeah. So it sounds like, you know, many of these organizations are set up to efficiently manage projects, right. And if we look at innovation as another project, it just has to be that we change the paradigm on how we're measuring our success. So operationally, we can do this. It's just a matter of making sure that we've, we're, we're bought in throughout the organization and that we understand the way in which we need to kind of track progress and then ultimately monetize the outcomes. We've talked a bit about Williams robotics and, and, you know, your, your view on innovation. But I think it would be great to share specifically, what is it you guys are doing and how are you going to change
Speaker 2 (14:52):
The industry? Yeah. So, you know, our main sort of target is to work in an offsite construction planet first cause we feel like that'll be a, you know, a safer place to sort of, you know, get really good at working with the imperfect materials of wood. Um, so we have a prototype that is a wall panel robot. So basically as it says, it's a robot operated by one person that builds walls. Not again, it's still in prototype prototype phase. It's got tweaks that that will we'll learn about once we get it out into a plant. So that's, that's our primary thing. And then beyond that, you know, we've, we feel like there's some runway and, and floor trusses and roof trusses and really anything, anything sort of similar, repetitive as a construction task, we feel like we can tackle with automation and robotics.
Speaker 4 (15:35):
Yeah. We, you know, to, to put a very high level, we take that BIM information and convert it into a format that the robot can understand. And then we, we further have the ability to control the robot in a way that it's, it's effectively behaving with the dexterity and judgment and skill that a carpenter would normally use to, to build the house. So we, we try to take the, the, the carpenter or the materials and the plans that the carpenter uses and build a house as much. Like he would build it as possible with, with the Roma.
Speaker 2 (16:13):
All right. Well, it sounds like a very interesting application of your combined experience and skill sets. So with this, you must have your own ideas of what the industry is going to look like five, 10, 15 years out from now. So I'd love to get your perspective as a team. What is your ideal construction industry look like in 10 years? So, I mean, I love thinking about that. You know, I could talk about this all day long. So I guess I feel like we're heading into a whole lot more of all site construction versus onsite. I've seen the progression when I started this 28 years ago, there was hardly anything done offsite and I've just seen it shift significantly. And I think that will happen much more so in the next five, 10, 15 years, I also think there still will be people involved, but I feel like there will be a lot more of the automation, robotics, you know, I feel like right now, as builders and as an industry, we feel like we have to all be able to say yes to everything.
Speaker 2 (17:06):
Like, you know, do you want a hot tub on your roof? Yes, we can do that. You know, I feel like that that mentality is probably going to go away more like the auto industry where it's, you know, not as many options, which, which I think would be good for our industry, you know, I think it's okay to say no, you know, sometimes. And then also just from a buyer's perspective, I feel like just, I think we've seen some of this in this, this COVID situation that we're living in now where there's going to be a lot more sort of virtual shopping for homes and less model houses and onsite selling. So that's, that'll be interesting to see how that impacts our industry. And I'm sure Jeff has some thoughts on that. Those are just sort of a few things that come to my mind.
Speaker 4 (17:42):
Yeah. I agree with that sort of that tenure outlook, that modular and offsite in general have our interim that we're definitely gonna move towards. But, um, I like thinking about it in a much longer viewpoint, the 20 to 25 years out, you know, about the time I'm going to retire, you know, frankly, uh, I know this will sound crazy, but what it looks like to me is a big machine that drives up to the home site. The operator loads that with material and the plans and a machine unfolds, he mashes the go button grabs a cup of coffee in a house is bill. I truly believe that bizarre thing could happen. And in 25 years,
Speaker 2 (18:24):
Very cool. And it sounds like based off what you're doing with the Williams robotics team, you'll, you guys will be front and center when that all takes place. So we'll be excited to see how that unfolds. Now, I know that as you go through the prototyping and introducing this, uh, this solution that you're developing to the members of our organization and other players in the industry, you're obviously going to run into some obstacles. I'm wondering what can kind of the call to action, be to work community, to help this along and other solutions like it,
Speaker 4 (18:54):
You know, take the first step and do it in a cordial collaborative way. As you know, I think one of the things that housing Alliance does really well is, is just really bringing the community together in a friendly, um, you know, productive manner and, you know, to continue that, keep the conversations going. But, but also, as Walker said, it's not free. Some people are gonna have to do things that feel like risk. If we don't take that first step, we're not going to get there that not starting guarantees failure.
Speaker 2 (19:29):
Yeah. It kind of reminds me of my, literally my very first day when I was in high school, when I was working on a construction site, they just threw me in on the framing crew. And back then we had, there were 16 people in a framing crew and I didn't know anything. And the lead carpenter got in my car just came by and yelled a bunch of stuff for us to do, went on to another job. And then he came back and he was just furious with me because he just jumped out of the truck and you can kind of tell, I was just sort of timid and frozen and didn't want to mess anything up. Didn't want to do anything. So I just decided to do nothing, which I'm not proud of, but that's the way it was. And he just was yelling, do something, even if it's wrong, you know, and that was day one for me on construction 28 years later, I think that's exactly what we needed to be doing.
Speaker 2 (20:06):
Now. We gotta, we gotta do something. Even if it's wrong, it probably will be wrong where wherever we start and think we're heading, we won't probably end up where we think we will, but we've got to start do something, even if it's wrong. I say that to people all the time now. And I don't, I don't, it's okay to make a mistake. Um, and then also to what Jeff was talking about earlier belt, but Dennis, once you guys are dealing with the housing innovation lab, you probably don't realize how important it is, but you know, our industry is so sort of siloed. We don't want to share what we're up to or what we're thinking with anybody else. And we just, you know, there's just hundreds and thousands of silos of knowledge, and you guys are doing a really good job of sort of breaking those barriers down and forcing us kind of out our comfort zone a little
Speaker 3 (20:48):
Bit to have conversations with competitors and collaborate with suppliers and competitors, to just start having these productive conversations about, you know, the, what if or where we're headed and things that we have to do as an industry to just stay relevant and profitable. Yeah. Well, no, I thank you for the kind words from both the, about our organization. That's certainly what we aim to do with, you know, it's about how do we keep, keep cross connecting across Pawnee, not only with our organization, but everyone across the value chain, right? I mean, that's, that's the really, really important piece here and, and, and looking for a common interest beyond our what's good for us and our companies, and what's gonna be, what's gonna work for the greater good that that's incredibly important. I think just touching on something you mentioned there Walker, you know, we, we, as a, as a community kind of refer to your concept as, uh, you know, what your site supervisor share with you, you know, that idea of the fail forward, right.
Speaker 3 (21:43):
You know, you'll, you'll make mistakes. There are lessons that are earned and you work with them and build off it. You know, I had a, I had a similar experience in one of my earlier positions where someone said to me, I'd much rather grab you by the tail, then kick you in the backside. And that stuck with me. Right. And I, and I think we need to continue to see more of that in the next generation of leadership that's coming through the industry. And that's something that we, we look to help kind of promote and propagate as well, uh, as we, as we bring new community members. And so I think you're that you're right on. We have to be willing to take measured risks and look across the ecosystem to see how we can work with one another to create a better partnering and better delivery models.
Speaker 3 (22:26):
No, I think this is, this has been a great introduction to get to know that the two of you as innovators and the thought leaders behind Williams robotics, any parting words for our community, not just for me, just keep, keep getting out of your comfort zone and keep pressing the conversation towards gotta do things differently and we have to innovate to stay relevant. Let's go make some cool robots. Well, thank you, Jeff. Thank you, Walker. Really appreciate the time today and look forward to connecting again in the near future. Thanks a lot, Dennis, take care On behalf of the housing innovation Alliance and the university of Denver. This is Dr. Eric Holt. Thank you for being part of our journey. This is where innovation.