A Hamilton startup, EC8, has created a world first in the building industry by developing automation technology to measure and cut plasterboard. It is now making its technology available to builders, so they can cut down building times, have accurate plasterboard cuts, and decrease waste.

“It’s a world first – nobody has used automation for mass volume plasterboard for building,” Staal says.

In 2018, Staal and his family moved back to New Zealand and renovated their home.  He found that putting up plasterboard was ‘a pain’, and wondered how it could be more quickly and easily. 

“The building industry suffers from a lack of automation, so the idea was ‘where can I apply all the cheap automation to the building industry’, and that’s where we joined the dots.”   

EC8 founder Christopher Staal.

Staal, who is both an engineer and an accountant, spent much of the following two years creating a tool to digitally measure walls, controlled through a phone app. The measuring process takes just one minute. Once walls are measured, an order to pre-cut plasterboard is sent, and once cut, is sent to builders.

Admittedly, it’s a big cutting tool, about 14m long.  But the time it saves on a house build is a great deal more of the value of the machine. Once the plasterboard is measured, cut and sent out, it results in savings from automation without the massive capital cost.    

“We want to get the time to measure and cut a sheet down to two minutes, down from six minutes, and we are nearly there. That will save one to two days of every build,” Staal says. “That’s quite substantial.”

The industry doesn’t need big billion-dollar factories to add in automation, Staal says. “Let’s make it easier and cheaper for builders to take digital measurements of walls and figure out how we can provide automation to everyday builders and make a bit of margin on it. That’s the market we want to serve – everyday builders around the world. “ 

The target market for EC8 is plasterboard distributors.  “What we want to do is offer the whole business in a box to the distributor and they go out to the individual builders and say, ‘hey do you want to use this product?’ – that’s our route to the market.” 

Eventually, EC8 may bring its offering into other products such as flooring and roofing, which would further reduce times of builds, and reduce even more building waste, “If you pre-cut the product in the factory none of the waste ends up on site, so you can recycle 100 percent of it.”

EC8 is currently working with a local Hamilton building company trialling the technology. Primarily self-funded, EC8 received an initial grant from Callaghan Innovation and intends to start selling and marketing its technology in the next three months assisted by a business mentor from Callaghan.

“We’re so grateful to Callaghan for getting this off the ground – we wouldn’t have been able to fund this otherwise,” Staal says.

EC8’s commercial measuring unit.

Staal, also took on a raise six months ago, “which is keeping us alive.” He intends to go out for another raise later this year, to commercialise the product faster.

Staal says running a startup is ten times harder than being in a salaried job, and it has its challenges, such as time management, getting staff- EC8 has a staff of four – and securing funding.

“You still have that doubt in your mind; are we going to get the next round of investment – there’s so many worries trying to keep the lights on it kind of distracts you from getting the tech off the ground.”

One piece of hardware took two years to get the required accuracy before it could be trialled commercially. So Staal has advice for other startups facing challenging situations. 

“Take a breath, walk away from it. A lot of the time, a solution will come to you when you stop focusing on it – and when you guess how long something is going to take, multiply it by 10 as you will need to make it 10 times over.”

After going to the local market, hoping to make a profit in 18 months, EC8 intends to branch out to the United States and Australia.  

“It’s not a product that you can develop just for the NZ market,” Staal says. “There’s just two suppliers of plasterboard in New Zealand, we’re working with both of them, they’ve been really supportive.”

Story by Dave Crampton.

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