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Case Study – Micro-home building for the future

The challenge

The quality and design of living/working spaces and how well they perform for us in supporting our lives and creating wellbeing is a long held passion of mine. I find the idea of people being able to extend, modify and add micro-spaces to enhance their existing property really exciting.

Charlie Dalton is a person who has been at the forefront of micro-building construction on a truly national scale for over 15 years. His original business, Smart Garden Offices, has supplied thousands of mini-offices, gyms, art studios and extra micro-sized spaces. These have had a dramatic influence for good on people’s lives.

In a chance meeting with Charlie back in the spring of 2018 I was intrigued to hear first-hand about his vision.

The issues

He explained his latest project that already employed a small team of designers, production staff and a site team to build and install permanent micro-dwellings. The difference from his Smart Garden Offices is that his micro-dwellings are habitable and thus must meet Building Regulations. Charlie outlined the business strategy which included a significant increase in sales nationwide. It therefore required substantial manufacturing infrastructure and production capacity to match. The increase in manufacturing was an eye-watering increase from its current production of one building every six weeks to two buildings per week – a twelve fold increase in five months!

Charlie needed additional help and invited me to join his team for the specific project of upscaling manufacturing and leading a development strategy. The initial focus was to increase manufacturing in step with Charlie’s sales predictions and then moving across  to managing the design team, increase its resource and manage a development strategy of the Zedbox product.

Key points of development and planning for success

1. The existing premises were not ideal for supporting our target manufacture but with limited local premises available we started the increased production in the current location which forced greater detailed production planning with work flow.

2. Traditional woodworking manual machines were used in limited production in favour of automated state of the art CNC (computer controlled milling machines) from Italy. This would provide, from the start, a strong foundation in precision ultra-accurate machine cutting for reliable, quality controlled buildings. It would also give an important model for scalable manufacture as well as an easier transition to double shift working to ramp up production capacity when required.

3. Projecting forward six months to produce a supply schedule, work flow and cash flow plan with enhanced detail on use of space for our desired exponential increase in production. The plan’s enhanced detail was to layout provision of setting down space required for speed effective goods deliveries, flow of the goods in and out of the production space and a packing, wrapping and setting down system pre-dispatch. We even had to consider dynamic skip placement so we could move our waste skips around the outside yard to deal with goods in and out and waste collection.

4. Production material delivery dates and specific quantities were scheduled from actual sales and requisitions sent months ahead of time to the suppliers to indicate the overall scale of supply for best pricing regardless of small deliveries and also safeguard against delivery delays.

5. The project used imported large width structural grade planned pine from Scandinavia. We predicted the supplier’s capacity of timber would be reached by the fourth month of our production increase, leaving no spare capacity to mitigate import delays. Even after researching new suppliers, this apparent specialist and limited supply forced us to rethink the main timber construction.

6. The large width structural grade planned pine materials had to be stored outside and hence needed to be machined at variable speed rates depending on the weather in which it was stored, i.e. speed versus moisture continent of the wood. The timber also showed significant dimensional instability before and after machining, hampering production, on site construction and incurring high rates of waste. After considering engineered timber material as our replacement we completed brainstorming and research to introduce engineered (laminated) pine into our production. The introduction of engineered pine meant we could now order the timber from a greater number of suppliers and in lower waste efficient sizes. The engineered timber was also kiln dried so it machined with consistent speeds and predictability. The resulting change in timber rewarded us at the production line with increased productivity due to accurately repeatable machining and we could now concentrate on optimised machine efficient programming. We also saw a significant reduction in waste and cost of waste collection.

7. At the start of the summer 2018 the company was producing a building every 100 hours. Within three months we had the production time down to 45 hours per building through improved materials, more detailed production, greater machine tool path efficiency and the redesigning of major components to save on the quantity of components and simplify construction.

8. The delivery system required fast prepacking of the building components into weather resistant boxes that could be put into store pre delivery. The packing boxes would need to be sturdy enough for dispatch by forklift onto trucks and also had to be offloaded on site by crane or by hand. The solution was developed using a series of machine profiled flat panels that fitted together to form a strong box by design but could still flat pack back down for space efficient storage and van return from site. The boxes were fast, light weight and easy to assemble and move with 2 people but sturdy enough allowing fork truck movement when laden. These designed boxes proved successful for multiple deliveries and reduced one use packing material costs significantly and hence waste clearance costs on site.

The outcome

Unsurprisingly, this herculean effort by the whole team was exhausting but showed what can be achieved when a team works together. The effort from everyone within this business was immense, Charlie really spurred on the team,  providing immense enthusiasm, leadership and drive. It helped the team to bond effectively and it cemented a positive “can do” approach in the production and design team.

Although the Zedbox story then changed direction, Zedbox is an amazing concept and one that was proven to work in its marketplace.

Testimonial

“Ian was instrumental in the exponential growth and development of Zedbox manufacture and design. Ian worked with strategy and hard work, both practically and intellectually. He galvanised his team and peers with enthusiasm and an eye for detail.”

Charlie Dalton, Zedbox.