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Effects of Automation on Flooring – Part 3: Installation

Traditionally wood floors were installed from raw unfinished wood. Afterward, the wood is then sanded, stained, and finished on site. This process, also known as site-finished flooring, requires a wider scope of experience from an installer and a longer timeline to complete. This ultimately resulted in far more money in the installer’s pocket. In 2017, retailers estimated over 80% of all wood floors sold are now factory finished and that number looks to be even higher by now. Reasons sited were often related to tougher finish and less messy environment during installation.

Current State

When it comes to wood flooring installation much of this industry has already been automated through the widely accepted and often preferred prefinished flooring aka factory-finished floors. These factory-finished floors are the first step in outsourcing an installer's job to automation. See Part 1 of this series for more details regarding automation in a factory setting from sanding to finishing.

With the explosion in popularity of ready-to-use factory-finished wood floors going directly to the consumer already stained and finished. The installer’s profit comes only for the installation portion of the project. How long will this last? We already have the beginning building blocks of robotics floor cleaning devices such as Roomba. When will robotics be advanced enough to install a natural product like wood?

Robotic Installations

If you’ve ever installed flooring you probably already know that it is both physically and mentally demanding. Each project has to be carefully planned before ever using the hammer. Even the best plans have unexpected twists and turns. Planks come random length with each plank being uniquely different. There is certain artistry when working with a natural product like wood and a good installer earns their wages through their ability to deal with unpredictability.

This is why I believe flooring installation will be one of the last professions to be replaced by robotics. This is due to the custom nature of each job site and degree of difficulty for programming a machine to do custom work and making all the judgment calls required to install a floor properly.

Automation Proof

Like many of the themes discussed in Part 1 & Part 2, automation will happen gradually and the repetitive tasks will be automated away first. There are many areas where a machine will excel over humans such as nail patterns and reducing error, therefore you will more likely see machine-assisted installations before full automation. As an installer, you should focus on areas of your work that involve problem-solving and dynamic motions such as installing vents and stairs. Seek out opportunities in new construction homes where the dust and smell of site-finished floors are not a deterring factor. Planning the beginning steps and finishing touches will be extremely difficult to substitute due to all the variables of each home.

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