From factory floor to construction site
A quiet revolution is taking place, as machines take on more duties long performed by humans, and it’s changing the way we build. Whilst industry has operated with robots as an integral part of the manufacturing process for some time, the use of robots in construction is a relatively new phenomenon. Now, linked to the technological acceleration brought on by COVID-19, this is a significant moment in the history of the construction robot, as machines become an affordable and effective tool in making sites safer and more productive.
The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) identifies two categories of robots, those used in automation such as in manufacturing and assembly lines, and service robots. Service robots can replicate human operation on building sites, such as by laying bricks, manual lifting and driving site machinery.
Tier 1 contractors have invested in Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA), with Lange O’Rourke automating the manufacture of composite wall and floor panels, increasing the proportion of construction off-site, improving productivity and reducing waste in the process. This takes significant investment, so it’s unsurprisingly not a route open to all contractors, but there are other ways in which automation and robotics are being used to reduce risks, increase productivity, and reduce costs.
The use of robotics in construction project management requires one key capability; the ability to recognise and adapt to the unique surroundings of the project site. This is achieved in two-ways, through remote connectivity and the ability of robots to “see” the site constraints.
Both Volvo and Caterpillar are developing automated machines to tackle the skills gap in construction that provides novel ways of overcoming the need to see the site, without being exposed to the risks of being on site.
Volvo’s HX02 battery powered autonomous load carrier and LX01, a similarly powered autonomous loader, have demonstrated the potential to reduce emissions and improve safety. Whilst Caterpillar have equipped their machines with CAT Command; a combination of electronics and software that allows their machines to be operated remotely, removing workers from any environmental risks.
Significant elements of construction require manual handling and the impact of fatigue and injury on the job site, can limit levels of productivity. But now, these issues are being addressed by Comau. Comau have developed an exoskeleton that assists the wearer, by making it easier and safer for workers to perform heavy lifting and overhead work.
On another front, the capture of existing and as-built information is critical to reducing inaccuracies in the design phase of a build, that can commonly lead to delays and additional costs during construction. The benefits of digital twins has been explored in our recent blog (Back to reality – virtual design in the built environment) – but now, even site scanning can be automated by SPOT, Boston Dynamics’ autonomous robot dog, who with the right equipment on board can be programmed to walk the same path each day to record progress and highlight issues. SPOT can navigate stairs or obstacles whilst scanning, that until recently would have required a human to complete.
Safety, resilience, and productivity
The benefits of adopting these new technologies can be significant. The high investment costs needed to run off-site manufacturing facilities, means a large proportion of projects that do not lend themselves to this form of construction can still benefit. Increases in productivity, safer working practices and the ability to keep sites working to combat labour shortages and even, the risks associated with COVID-19, are but a few.
Safe working is a major concern for everyone involved in the construction process, which is an inherently dangerous industry, exposing workers to toxic environments, working from height, manual lifting and the operation of heavy plant machinery. Break-throughs, such as autonomous plant, exoskeletons and SPOT are proving that the riskier and mundane tasks can be completed by machines, freeing up skilled labour to be allocated to the tasks that cannot be replicated by a robot.
Productivity can also be improved by using robots as an extension of normal site working hours and providing a level of resilience not achievable with humans, allowing operations to continue when the working environment would otherwise be harmful to workers.
The cost of using robots may seem expensive yet, when compared with the overall cost of employing skilled labour and coupled with recent reductions in the cost of these technologies, it now means the cost benefit analysis has moved in favour of the robots. As has been the case with even advanced robots such as SPOT. New lease options make the use of this technology affordable and less costly than employing the human equivalent.
To combat stagnant productivity and address the labour shortages faced by the construction industry, at Future Projects we believe a combination of DfMA and automation is necessary.
Recent developments, driven by the overarching needs of resilience, sustainability, and productivity, mean it is now becoming a reality to employ machines to help us Build Back Better and do this is a way that reduces risks to workers, reduces emissions and delivers increases in productivity to drive down costs.
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