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Let your customers know how your product will help with labor shortage issues.

Ed Hudson, MBA
January 17, 2018

Manufacturer Opportunities to Create Labor Shortage Solutions

Last week I posted an introductory piece during the International Builders’ Show (IBS) on new building product strategies that are likely to be well received in the current climate of labor shortage. They included:

  • developing products that create opportunities for piece-rate workers
  • shifting more of the installation from the jobsite to the factory

  • developing new products where one trade can do the work of two

Over the past several years of visiting IBS and conducting field and lab research on labor-saving materials, tools, and equipment, I’ve seen some that have been really successful for the manufacturers who seized on the opportunity. In addition to those I mentioned previously, here are some other concepts to consider:

Reduce Installation Skill Requirement

One way to help builders get their new hires productive more quickly is to offer new materials and tools that reduce skill level. Though a word of caution—very often, skilled workers resist changes that level the playing field and allow lesser-skilled workers to work as fast as them, when they’ve spent years working to master their skill set. If a time- or trade-saving innovation you introduce gets too much pushback from trades, consider marketing it more for remodeling generalists, those who provide handyman services, and do-it-yourselfers who all welcome alternatives that allow them to install materials they otherwise could not.

Combine Functions into a Single Material

Each separate visit to a jobsite introduces inefficiency to an installation contractor—unloading the work vehicle, layout and organizing, setting up and taking down scaffolding, cleaning, etc. all take time and have to be done with each visit. Fewer trips to the jobsite equals greater efficiency. One way to help contractors gain this efficiency is by developing products and materials that combine the functions of multiple materials. For example, I saw one product at IBS this year that combines structural wall sheathing, nailing base, weather- and air barriers, and insulation—all in one material to be installed by the framing crew on new homes.

Encourage Experienced Workers to Stay Longer

Taking steps to improve the labor climate could include encouraging workers to stay in the industry longer. I’ve often heard, “Construction is a young person’s job.” Materials that are physically less taxing to install can lead to lower turnover among more mature employees, who typically move on to less strenuous jobs as their strength and stamina decline, and the wear and tear of construction labor increases their pain and incidence of injuries.

Develop Products that Change Crew Dynamics or Size

For most construction installations, there is a natural size for a crew that depends upon materials installed and equipment used. Siding installation, for instance, is often most efficient when done by installers in multiples of three—one to cut and tender materials, and two on the scaffolding taking measurements and fastening materials. Sometimes, a new material or installation method changes the work dynamic in favor of a different size crew, leading to opportunities to reduce overall installation time. For example, we conducted a time study on exterior trim and found that shorter sections of trim (12’) were faster to install than longer 16’ and 18’ sections. The shorter length allowed a single installer to hold the material in place while nailing, whereas with longer sections a second person was needed to assist. If you have an innovation that changes crew dynamic, be careful to think the entire process through—it may reduce one worker’s installation time but result in longer wait times for other crew members.

Focus on the Big Stuff

I’ve seen innovations that reduce the time of an activity by half or more, without having a measurable impact on total labor time. In those cases, the time savings isn’t what’s meaningful so that’s not what should be promoted. Recently, we evaluated a new product that reduced the time spent leveling windows and doors. It had initially met with tepid market acceptance because few believed that leveling doors and windows was particularly time consuming. In the end, it was determined this product’s greatest appeal was that it resulted in more consistent installation and better functioning doors and windows; not the time savings.

Address Real Issues, Not Annoyances

Make sure you are addressing a real productivity issue, rather than issues that are just annoying. I’ve seen new products fail to make it to mainstream because, while the market liked a less dusty, less itchy, and lighter weight product, buyers weren’t willing to pay more for it.

For decades, we’ve been helping to demonstrate and evaluate labor savings innovation through on-site research. Our laboratory houses a unique observation research facility where we conduct research on building materials installation. Now is the time to let your customers know how you can help ease the impact of the labor shortage. Contact me to discuss how this service can help you identify labor savings opportunities or validate your claims that a new product really results in installation time savings.

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