Back in the 1990’s my work in roofing distribution was focused on improving safety and operational efficiencies. The team I worked with was forward-thinking and we adopted many of the best systems and practices available at the time. To learn about the next great thing in wholesale distribution we often gained the most knowledge by studying other industries, such as pharmaceutical distribution.

Pharmaceuticals? What’s that got to do with skids of shingles or truck-mounted conveyors?

Not much, but there are similarities. For instance, pharmaceutical distributors “break bulk,” sourcing and storing large quantities of product that will later be picked, packed, and shipped in much smaller quantities. The same for a roofing wholesaler. However, the warehouse management systems pharmaceutical wholesalers employed were far advanced from what was typically used in roofing distribution.

While these sophisticated systems were mostly impractical for smaller users such as we were, we learned from them and adopted the systems that advanced our efforts to operate safer and better. Today’s roofing suppliers continue seeking improvements to remain competitive while offering great service.

They continue to look outside their own world of building-materials distribution to the broader world of distribution and logistics technologies to find ways to improve their safety, cost, and services.

This is one reason I think it’s a good idea for roofing contractors to pay attention to the world of robotics. No, there’s not a robotic shingle installer on the market. There are, however, many solutions being developed and marketed to assist humans with work that’s heavy and repetitive. There are plenty of tasks in roofing that are both physically challenging and repetitive.

For instance, exoskeletal devices that can help with lifting, squatting, and repetitive motion activities may have a place on the roofing job. With an exoskeletal device it’s conceivable that a worker could maintain a constant speed at tasks such as drilling concrete, caulking long horizontal joints, or installing fasteners, to name but a few. And not only maintain a productive speed of operation but be able to maintain a productive level longer and with fewer instances of injury.

Exoskeletal devices may also enhance the opportunities for people of a smaller stature who might otherwise not be able to perform heavy work. For example, that 50 percent of the workforce (women) whom we historically haven’t even considered as roofers.

In a world where we don’t have enough skilled workers, this sounds like a win-win-win to me.

So, where do you begin to look for these advanced solutions? I am going to attend the Consumer Electronics Show this month to see what I can learn. I will report back to you if I veer into any new developments that would work in the roofing world.

In the meantime, look at the world of manufacturing. The manufacturing industry, especially the automobile industry, has the scale to develop this kind of technology. Look at their new devices and figure out how you can adapt them to advance safety and productivity on your roofing jobs.

I believe this approach defines “thinking outside the box” and has the potential to move the roofing industry forward in ways we never dreamed possible. The online version of this column at contains links to articles on how other industries are using exoskeletal devices.