The Robot Revolution: How Automation is Changing Construction
By today’s standards, the construction industry is one of our least “automated” business sectors, still heavily reliant on traditional human labor and only just now experimenting with autonomous machines to plan, build, renovate and demolish physical structures.
For now, robots don’t play a significant role in any phase of the building lifecycle, but as demand increases for less waste and greater productivity, many see automation as the answer. So, what will the future look like as machines start to work alongside their human counterparts? A number of automated technology trends and machine-driven processes are gaining traction in the construction industry as a means to save time, lower costs, improve quality and reduce safety risks—a growing presence on jobsites, warehouses and off-site manufacturing facilities.
Prefab: The Advantages of Assembly Line Building
Prefab construction—assembling the majority of a structure before shipping it to a prepared jobsite-- is a here-and-now reality that is delivering significant cost reduction and other business benefits. In Japan, 16% of residential structures are built using prefabrication techniques, while in Sweden, prefab construction now accounts for as much as 40% of new housing projects.
Why is prefab construction gaining traction so fast? Broadly speaking, prefabricated projects require fewer materials and generate less waste than traditional construction techniques. In a controlled factory setting factory, it’s easier to specify the exact amount of material needed and easily recycle any material that isn’t used—a costly issue on most jobsites. Moreover, with the majority of completion taking place in the factory, installation of the components can be completed faster and more cost-effectively than building the entire structure onsite.
The bottom line advantage of prefab construction is this: a worker who operates a machine that does the building is far more efficient than a worker who does the building himself. Moreover, prefabricated parts can be transported to the construction site and used to build structures in an accelerated timeframe, leveraging existing infrastructure for storage and transportation.
Drones: Capturing a Bird’s-Eye View
Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), are no longer the stuff of science fiction, military missions or extreme hobbyists. Drones have become so affordable in the past few years that most large construction companies use them with some regularity to provide photographic images and other information that wouldn’t otherwise be available. The machines have also become more versatile, adding commercial value with accessories that include professional grade cameras, surveying equipment and technology that can supply useful data for backend analysis.
Drones are used widely to conduct site inspections, especially on major projects like skyscrapers, shopping malls or housing developments. The benefits are clear: an individual or a team of inspectors could spend days walking through a jobsite to analyze safety precautions and progress, yet drones allow a single pilot to do the same work from a safe, even offsite location.
Drones are also a cost-effective solution for inventory management. Surveyors currently use GPS coordinates to cross-section piles of materials and determine their quantity, but a surveyor drone equipped with a camera and lasers can achieve the same result in a matter of minutes. That’s a significant savings in time and labor costs, and a boost for the bottom line.
Demolition Robots: Delivering Safety and Savings
Demolition robots are used in the construction industry to demolish buildings at the end of their lifecycle. Because construction demolition is an inherently dangerous job, automating the process with robotics helps human workers avoid risk and complete more productive tasks, While demolition robots have a high initial cost, they are proving to be cost-effective in the long-term, delivering impressive levels of ROI in both time and labor cost savings.
The mobile robots used for demolition on a construction site leverage a variety of end-of-arm tools such as breakers, crushers, drills or buckets to break through building materials. Most demolition robots resemble small excavators, except without the cab, and are designed to pack a strong punch in a small space that will fit through doorways and stairways. Currently, demolition robots occupy 90% of the total market for construction robots-- one of the first commercially viable service robots to tackle applications in a historically labor-intensive industry.
Looking Ahead to an Automated Future
In 2020, many large construction firms are already using elements of prefab construction, an approach proven to offer significant project-delivery and cost-saving benefits. Drones, too, are increasingly a common sight on construction jobsites.
By 2021, once regulations that govern the use of drones catch up with the technology, contractors will routinely use them to collect data and monitor the progress of jobs at regular intervals, if not around the clock. The overhead view offered by drones will also increase the safety and effectiveness of self-driving machines.
By 2022, it’s likely that machine-guided construction technology will accelerate as it takes cues from the auto industry’s efforts to manufacture self-driving cars. Initial applications will include self-guided machinery for excavation, and other basic tasks— “smart” demolition robots are already in place--and once it’s proven to be safe and cost-effective, adoption will most likely be rapid.
Calculating the Human Factor
With so much to gain from the cost-saving efficiencies of robotics, the construction industry has begun to adopt many of the same machine-focused processes that other industries—most notably automotive manufacturing—have used to their advantage for years. Yet on the average jobsite, even repetitive construction tasks are difficult or impossible to fully automate. Why? Because robots are best at performing repetitive tasks in a controlled environment, and construction sites are anything but. As any contractor knows, the worksite is subject to change from day to day—or even hour to hour-- impacted by variables beyond anyone’s direct control. To be as effective as their human counterparts, machines must be able to adapt to that variability in real time with little or no reprogramming, just as a human worker does. That day, while perhaps inevitable, is still a long way off.