Moving toward automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics is becoming less of a choice than a necessity for North America’s construction industry.
If ever there was an industry poised for automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, it is construction. Despite being one of the biggest sectors of the world’s economy, and expected to grow to US$24,334.9 billion by 2021, the construction industry continues to be impacted by a desperate shortage of skilled workers, low productivity, and the wastage of costly materials.
While manufacturing and agriculture are embracing robotics, automation, and AI to produce product and accomplish their work with greater efficiency and enhanced safety, construction lags behind in these technologies. The industry itself is not entirely at fault.
For decades, many high school students about to graduate were discouraged from entering the ‘3Ds’ – trades viewed as ‘dirty, dangerous and demeaning,’ such as welding, plumbing, carpentry, assembly, and similar. Increasingly they were steered toward white collar careers. And with schools across North America shuttering shop classes, an entire generation of young men and women were never exposed to hands-on acquaintance with metal work, welding, woodworking or fabrication, resulting in fewer future tradespeople entering the job market.
From drones to robots
Fortunately, technology already exists to help construction companies make up for the lack of workers, and improve efficiency and productivity. One example is the use of drones. Particularly effective on very large locations such as multi-acre housing developments, shopping malls and stadium builds, they’re being used by construction firms to conduct surveys, with global positioning systems (GPS) and cameras mapping the landscape with far greater speed and accuracy than the human eye ever could.
Working in real time, drones are also valuable for security and round-the-clock monitoring. They can track deliveries, sniff out potential hazards to workers, and inspect rooftops, eliminating the climbing of ladders and workers putting their lives at risk.
And as drones become more powerful – like the eight-propeller Griff 300, which can lift a staggering 500 pounds (226 kg) and stay aloft for 45 minutes – their ability to transport heavy loads of materials will increase.
A challenge that’s always plagued the construction industry is the tiring and demotivating effect of repetitious activity. While craftsmanship is much respected, tasks such as bricklaying need real physical effort lifting bricks, working mortar, placing with precision, and repeating again and again. To overcome the shortage of qualified bricklayers and speed up construction, New York area company Construction Robotics has come up with several unique products. These include the aptly-named MULE, short for Material Unit Lift Enhancer – designed to hoist up to 135 pounds (61 kg) of construction site materials – and the SAM100.
The world’s first commercially available bricklaying robot, the SAM (which stands for Semi-Automated Mason) is impressively efficient. SAM100 travels back and forth, its robotic arm scooping up a brick, applying the precise amount of mortar and placing it, while a separate mechanism moves the next brick forward to be scooped up.
SAM100 has already seen action in the building of structures such as Shenandoah University’s Athletics and Events Center, the Ford Driving Dynamics Lab, and Washington D.C.’s The Lab School.
For construction companies, the advantages of SAM100 are many. With the entire process taking just seconds per brick laid, it reduces the cost of human labor by at least 50 percent. Designed to work in collaboration with human masons, it increases productivity by three to five times, while reducing lifting by 80 percent or more. Ergonomically designed, the SAM100 also lowers the risk of accidents to workers and continuously gathers data, which can assist in further quoting.
Although not cheap at around half a million dollars U.S., the SAM100 doesn’t require on-the-job training and years of experience, and can lay almost 3,000 bricks per day, compared to the human average of 500.
For years we have been told about the inevitability of autonomous cars, yet despite the enactment of self-driving vehicle legislation in 29 states, they aren’t quite here yet. But self-driving trucks, from manufacturers like Caterpillar, have been in use on large mine sites for years. Now companies like Build Robotics are on board to help get the construction sector moving with self-driving equipment.
Founded in 2016 in San Francisco, the company’s aim is straightforward: “We build robots to make construction safer, faster, and more productive.” With its largest excavator coming in at a hefty 82,048 pounds (37,216 kg), Build Robotics is poised to play a key role in earth moving, a trillion-dollar industry at the foundation of almost every construction project worldwide.
Building robotic upgrade kits for use on construction equipment, the company has combined software with off-the-shelf sensors to make excavators, skid steers, and dozers work autonomously. Already logging over 6,000 hours of autonomous operation with a perfect safety record, systems are equipped with sensors to detect and avoid other vehicles, humans, and even animals. With what’s called ‘geofence limiting,’ movement is limited to specific areas. If a problem should unexpectedly arise, safety observers can halt operations any time via a wireless emergency-stop feature.
For construction companies, particularly those working on large sites requiring earth moving and transportation of materials such as gravel or stone, the benefits of autonomous vehicles are many, from boosting efficiency to improving data collection. Using a combination of LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, GPS, and Inertial Measurement Units (IMU) that measure and report specific forces and orientation, construction machinery of the very near future will not only haul product but release workers from tasks like hole digging – potentially dangerous with its risk of sudden earth shifts.
Working smarter, not harder
Drones, bricklaying robots, and self-driving trucks are just a few of the technologies the construction industry will adopt in the coming years. While there will always be a place for human-guided finishing work and an educated human eye for detail, the sectors of the building industry that embrace artificial intelligence and robotics soonest will undoubtedly be where the greatest human physical effort is expended, such as concrete work.
As anyone who has ever mixed concrete by hand knows, it is back-breaking. Even smaller electric- or gas-powered mixers require attention, expertise, and strength, with a single bag of Portland cement weighing 94 pounds (42 kg). Through automation, companies will not only be able to program machinery to pour and level large amounts of concrete, but accurately calculate quantities with much less waste.
Globally, the construction sector is in a unique position. According to industry experts, such as the Associated General Contractors of America with its 26,000 member firms, about 70 percent of America’s contractors are having a tough time finding skilled-craft workers. This comes while the industry is expanding, and predicted to grow 12 percent by 2026. That’s not far off, and not nearly enough time to recruit, educate, and apprentice tens of thousands of carpenters, welders, plumbers, bricklayers, and other skilled tradespeople.
As the future delivers more high-tech products, like equipment that makes 3D printouts of entire structures, machines laying thousands of bricks a day, and drones capable of transporting materials faster and safer than humans driving trucks, these tools and similar developments won’t be an option but a necessity for an entire industry facing a dearth of skilled tradespeople. The quicker the construction industry embraces these developments, the better.