Mark Sugden and Chris Froud, senior associates and patent attorneys specialising in construction and robotics respectively at Withers & Rogers, explore the potential of using robots in construction
As skills shortages hit, and pressure increases to build more homes in the UK, could robots be the solution to the construction industry’s needs? There are three main advantages to using robots in construction: efficiency, precision and safety. Robots are programmed to carry out a specific set of actions and are optimised to do so. As a result, the construction process can be accelerated, while improving consistency and accuracy. Health and safety issues are also considerably reduced, with workers able to control the robot remotely and avoid the dangers of working on scaffolding.
While current robot technology is unlikely to replace people entirely anytime in the near future, there are many tasks in construction that are well suited to automation, which could help fill the gaps in the workforce left by current skills shortages. With demand for more high-quality homes increasing, anything that can bolster construction teams should be considered. It is even possible for a robot to build the walls of a home directly from a CAD model, ensuring speed and precision in construction, and offering a potential solution to the housing crisis.
As well as building homes on-site, robots could also be used to improve off-site manufacturing. Modern methods of construction (MMC) continue to grow in popularity, thanks to their efficiency, and robots could help to increase production further by building parts quickly in nearby micro factories.
However, there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome before robots become mainstream in construction. Perhaps the most challenging of them all is customer acceptance. While automated technologies have completed rigorous safety testing, and are insured, people are sometimes hesitant to trust new processes, especially in high-risk workplace settings. The long-term results of buildings made by robots have yet to be seen, and contractors and developers may be concerned about potential issues arising in the future.
The construction industry can be slow to change, because of the risks involved. Recent innovations in the sector include 3D printing and off-site construction, which have provided quality improvements and cost savings thanks to the controlled workshop environment. However, robots could alter the way even traditional homes are built, with the vital practical elements put in the hands of machines. This would be a considerable step forward for the industry, but it would likely take time to be widely accepted.
Another issue preventing wider take up of robots is access. Robots may work well on new build developments with plenty of open space, but it might not be suitable for building renovations, if tracks need to be laid for the robot to move along.
Despite the unresolved issues, innovation is an essential part of every industry, and there are a number of products coming to market that could bring the benefits of automation to traditional construction. These include Construction Automation’s ‘Automatic Brick Laying Robot’ (ABLR), European patent application EP 3,434,845 A1. The robot runs on a track laid around the foundations of a building, building up the external walls by laying bricks, blocks and mortar in layers. Mortar and bricks can be laid simultaneously using its independently moveable brick-gripping attachment and mortar nozzle, while an ‘intelligent control system’ allows walls to be constructed directly from digitised versions of the architect’s plans, improving accuracy and speed. The ABLR recently achieved the ‘NHBC Accepts’ accreditation, which means it can be used to build new homes covered by an NHBC warranty, which is an important step to widespread acceptance.
Fastbrick Robotics has also designed a brick-laying robot known as ‘Hadrian X’. This innovation doesn’t require a track, providing much greater flexibility in the designs that can be built. As well as being able to lay 200 concrete blocks per hour, the robot uses sensors and ‘Dynamic Stabilisation Technology’ to allow for variables such as wind, vibration and other environmental factors. This provides a level of precision that is normally only achievable indoors, allowing elements often built off-site, to be constructed on-site.
Robots are increasingly being used in other areas of construction too, such as automatically forming reinforcing bar structures for buildings. Skanska has patented (EP 3,678,798) a robot which can make it easier to manufacture reinforcing structures on-site, with flexible jaws that can switch between gripping a reinforcing bar and tying reinforcing bars together. The goal is for teams of robots to work together, with some gripping the reinforcing bars to manoeuvre them into place and hold them in position, while other robots tie the bars together.
When innovating in this area of construction technology, patents are an important tool, providing commercial protection for a period of up to 20 years. By obtaining a patent early on, innovators have an opportunity to secure market share, while preventing competitors from copying or reverse engineering their innovations.
As construction robots must undergo a lengthy testing process in order to be insured for use on-site, there is a risk that patenting too early could shorten the commercial window. However, waiting too long could allow a competitor to beat them to filing a patent first. This could block their product commercially and any time and money spent in development could potentially be wasted. It’s also important to note that a patent can only be granted if the innovation has been kept secret until the patent was filed, so potential innovators need to carry out testing in private, not on building sites where there is little control over who can witness the technology.
Construction is the ideal application for robots. Constructing a building typically involves a series of repetitive tasks, such as brick laying, which require a high degree of precision. Robots can complete such tasks to high degrees of accuracy and consistency, which means they are likely to be used more widely over time. However, such technologies must first win the trust of both consumers and construction companies.
In the meantime, innovators looking to enter this field should consider protecting their creations with patents as early as possible. As people witness the potential that robotics holds in construction, and the technology gains traction, competition will increase. Having a head start could make the difference between developing a next generation market-leading product, or one that falls by the wayside.