Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 35 seconds

Robotics is breaking into just about every industry to automate routine tasks or make work areas safer, but this technology hasn’t fully established itself in the construction landscape. 

That’s beginning to change as millennial companies look for ways for robots to assist with key functions, make them safer or even take them over completely. Key factors pushing for technological innovation in the construction process include the declining numbers of qualified construction workers, the increasing schedule and cost pressure on construction organizations, and high material consumption.

Some of the ways automation and robotics technologies have advantages (PDF) in on-site construction processes are:

  • Less dependency on direct labor has the potential to reduce problems related to quality and the repetitiveness of work, and cost reductions as fewer operators are needed for executing an automated system
  • Increased quality and productivity not necessarily due to speed of production, although that is part of it, but improving productivity by not having to work with the limitations of humans. For example, robot can be put in roles and sites that are unsafe for human workers
  • Enhanced occupational safety and reduction of injuries that result in workers compensation claims and/or regulatory violations and the associated costs
  • Greater control over the certain operational processes and more efficient methods to correct problems as they arise, thus affecting greater control over project outcomes.

However, there are challenges to implementing automation and robotics in construction work. The variability of work that goes into construction processes makes apparently similar projects uniquely different based on location, design specs, materials used, functional use and related factors—not to mention the variation in day-to-day issues on job sites, such as weather.

Other barriers can include financial investment in research and development, low technological literacy or workers to use developed automated processes or robotics, and incompatibility in integrating new technology into existing project management processes. Even in the face of these challenges, start-up companies and established developers, inspired by some of Hollywood’s blockbuster flicks, are bringing forth innovative technologies to execute construction projects more smartly, efficiently, and safely.

Iron Man has Clocked In

Imagine crew members being able to lift and maneuver two times their bodyweight with greatly reduced risk for injury—all they have to do is slip on an exoskeleton. (Picture IronMan-esque workers or something along the lines of the Amplified Mobility Platform controlled by soldiers in the movie Avatar).

The exoskeleton provides enhanced strength for activities that involve lifting and squatting. Exoskeletons are not limited to full body armor suits; they can be developed for repetitive tasks done with the hand/arm, which could otherwise lead to overuse injury. A California-based company, EskoBionics, develops products that amplify the body’s natural abilities, and support and protect industrial and construction workers as well as military, hospital workers, and persons with spinal cord injuries.

SAM-100 (Semi-automated Masonry) is a robot designed to lay bricks and work in collaboration with a mason. The robotic system lifts and places mortared bricks, while the mason concentrates on site setup, tooling joints, finishing, and quality. SAM can lay roughly 230 bricks an hour and can handle varying brick sizes without sweating it.

Other potential and actively researched areas for robotics in construction include roadwork (e.g., repaving, repainting), forklift operation, welding, demolition, drilling, and surveillance. As with any advancing technology, there are concerns that humanoids will create more problems than they solve (a nod to Asimov’s iRobot stories, later made to a feature film). For instance, robotics and other automated technologies will further the shortage of skilled laborers, because who will go into a skilled profession when robots and drones can do the job?

A more optimistic view recognizes that the purpose of automation and robots in construction is to augment what requires human skill and creativity; it’s impossible to replace that. Or is it? Only time--and careful balancing of scientific innovation with economics, safety and productivity--will tell just how much robotics on the construction job site will help or hurt the industry.

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Last modified on Saturday, 24 September 2016
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