As technology and AI gallop forward, robotics are making inroads into construction. Will there come a point where they can replace humans entirely?
When humans talked about robots 20 years ago, it was mostly still the stuff of imagination. Back then, we could barely envision a world where robots could effectively complete tasks that were previously the sole domain of humans.
But, fast-forward to 2019 and those visions are becoming more of a reality every day. That reality has less to do with the robot applications we’ve seen in movies, however, and more to do with the roles robots can effectively fill to move industries forward. As technology and AI progress, virtually no industry has been left untouched. Construction is no exception. Recently, we’ve seen robotic technologies infiltrate the construction of all sorts of things. These advancements beg the question: How long will it be before robots build everything?
The short answer is: probably a long time. But let’s take a look at some of the most meaningful ways robotic technology is making inroads into the construction of all sorts of things today, and whether or not we actually need to worry about a time in the future when humans will be expendable in this industry.
There are already countless different aspects of construction where technology can play a meaningful role. For instance, BIM software and virtual reality applications are already helping project managers visualise and plan the details of construction projects long before they come to fruition. These tools can even identify issues that will save money in the long run and can also help increase safety and minimise project risk.
Where is robotics making headway?
While planning and oversight have been immersed in technology, we’ve only recently seen progress in terms of specific tasks that robots can perform with anything approaching commercially viable practicality.
Case in point, Auburn University in Alabama this summer became the first to use robotics in masonry as part of the construction of its new Jay & Susie Gogue Performing Arts Centre. SAM100 (the name stands for “semi-automated mason”) can lay 3,000 bricks per day via a conveyor belt and arm, working alongside human masons. The university worked with C&C Masonry, which leased the robot for the project.
Scott Cunningham, president of C&C Masonry, explained to The Auburn Plainsman how the robot works: “You load the pattern in on a computer system, so you build the wall on your computer, transfer it to the tablet, and it tells SAM where windows are [and] controls joints. Anything that’s in the wall, he automatically calculates it and then he’ll lay the wall as you laid it out.”
While SAM can follow any pattern, the robotic system does have some limitations (perhaps guaranteeing the need for human intervention a bit longer). He cannot work around corners or do large offsets.
In reality, there will likely always be project-specific limitations when it comes to what robots can and can’t accomplish, at least with enough efficiency and precision to justify replacing their human counterparts.
This year also marked the unveiling of the Material Unit Lift Enhancer, aka MULE, from Construction Robotics. This robotic technology is designed to handle materials weighing up to 135 pounds, which has obvious and immediate benefits on all types of building projects.
“The truth is, I am (not) Iron Man”
Exoskeletons, or exosuits, are perhaps the most robotic-looking technology we’ve seen in construction thus far. These metal frameworks are fitted to mirror a person’s internal skeletal structure, and motorised muscles function to increase the strength of the individual wearing them. The suit makes lifted objects feel much lighter, and sometimes even weightless, reducing injuries and improving compliance.
While exosuits have yet to bestow upon construction workers all the powers of Iron Man, they are certainly ripe for growth, according to Dana Kara, a former robotics researcher at ABI Research.
ABI predicts the exoskeleton market will reach $1.8bn by 2025. Still, the firm acknowledges that although plenty of companies are manufacturing these exoskeleton suits for construction and manufacturing use, few construction companies have adopted them.
Where is robotic construction technology headed?
Exploring some of the other real-world applications where automation is gaining traction in the construction industry, global management firm McKinsey & Co released data based on how and where the companies within its own database are using automation.
The most prominent technologies included 3D printing, modularisation and robotics, digital twin technology, AI and analytics, and supply chain optimisation.
The first three – 3D printing, modularisation and robotics, and digital twin technology – are predicted to be “transformational” for the construction industry, according to the data.
Still, the report cautions that the proliferation of things like AI in the engineering and construction industry will be “modest” for the immediate future, indicating once again that these technologies still have a ways to go.
The study did, however, highlight how the consistent use of robotics and 3D printing would boost productivity in the construction industry by as much as five to 10 times.
Ultimately, there is no definitive timeline for when we may see a major shift to a robotic-centric workforce in the construction industry. We can, however, look to market growth as a predictor of the adoption rates of robotic technology.
The Construction Robotics Market Report offers a detailed outlook that could provide some guidance. The report’s findings support the notion that Europe and North America are leading the construction robotics markets. In fact, the organisation valued the construction robotics market at $200m in 2017, with that figure projected to reach $450m by 2025.
The day when we’ll see construction sites manned by robots may still be far off – and it still seems unlikely that these technologies will ever completely replace humans. Still, there is exciting potential to be realised in what’s to come and in the current technologies that allow managers to maintain a real – and real-time – view of their projects and to increase efficiencies, speed and safety through automation.
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