The construction industry is constantly coming up with technological advances in tools, equipment, and construction methods that improve the accuracy and efficiency of construction. Technologies like Computer-Aided Design (CAD), Building Information Modeling (BIM), and drones have been around for a while and are becoming commonplace. New developments that are on the horizon for impact on the industry include things like robotics and 3D printing.
Robotics and Automation
Robotics is the design, construction, and use of machines (robots) to perform tasks done traditionally by human beings. Robots are widely used in industries such as automobile manufacture to perform simple repetitive tasks, and in industries where work must be performed in environments hazardous to humans (Britannica, 2020).
As the median age in the construction industry continues to climb and with fewer and fewer new members joining the trades, many technology-based businesses are looking to advanced robotics to fill the void. The construction industry has different types of robotics for different applications. Below, I will touch on some robotic technologies that have been introduced to the industry in recent years.
Semi-automated material and equipment handling
Semi-automated material handling is when workers do the work of material handling with the help of machinery and other carrying trollies and trams. Semi-automation became popular in the industry in the initial days of the introduction of technology and is a good alternative to manual handling. Semi-automation not only reduces the physical work of workers but also speeds up the production work (Bhasin, 2020).
MULE (Material Unit Lift Enhancer) is a tool that aids workers by lifting heavy objects, such as concrete blocks. Masons, for example, endure a great deal of bodily wear and tear in repetitively placing heavy blocks. The MULE takes that burden by lifting the blocks with ease and placing them safely in the location guided by the mason. Blocks can be removed directly from the pallet on the ground eliminating the need to pre-stock block near the masons. With this technology, productivity has been shown to increase by more than 400%. The MULE helps retain more experienced masons by reducing the fatigue and stress on their bodies. The MULE also appeals to the next generation of masons, as it eliminates the inherent physical drawbacks of the trade. The MULE has an average return on investment timeline of approximately 6 months (Robotics, 2018).
Exoskeletons are tools that tradesmen wear to relieve the strain on their muscles, back and joints, making difficult jobs more manageable whilst simultaneously reducing injuries. Early versions of the exoskeletons transferred the weight and vibration of the tools that construction workers used through a pathway in the exoskeleton directly to the ground without the user feeling the load. These suits are designed to be lightweight, allowing the user to stand, stoop, bend and reach for extended periods of time, reducing fatigue and strain. Exoskeleton design and engineering is in its early stages with approximately 5,000 exoskeletons sold globally. Manufacturers anticipate 100,000 units to be sold by 2025. To achieve this goal, manufacturers are revising their designs to achieve a general consumer product that can be purchased off the shelf (EksoWorks, 2017).
Automation is the application of machines to tasks once performed by human beings or, increasingly, to tasks that would otherwise be impossible. Although the term mechanization is often used to refer to the simple replacement of human labor by machines, automation generally implies the integration of machines into a self-governing system (Britannica, 2020).
HADRIAN X is a brick laying robot that can reach up to 100 feet and place block or brick with precision according to the computerized design. The blocks or bricks are set with an adhesive that is stronger than traditional mortar and cures in 45 minutes. Hadrian X also reacts to wind, vibration and other external factors that could interrupt the installation. The robot can lay up to 1,000 bricks per hour or the equivalent of two brick layers over an eight-hour day (FBR, 2016).
3D printing is a technology that has found applications in virtually every industry, from medical devices to manufacturing and education. In the construction industry, 3D printing utilizes a common construction material, like concrete, to create materials or structures layer by layer through a large 3D printer. This technology has huge potential for impact on construction methods and is in its infancy for finding practical applications. As the technology develops and improves, it has the potential to save significant time and money, as well as reducing manual labor and conserving resources.
Apis Cor is a 3D printer robot that layers tubes of concrete in a structural pattern to create walls. Currently the 3D printer can only print walls, which on a small house can be completed in as few as 2 to 3 days. Although it can only construct a single story, its build can extend to a larger footprint by relocating the center point of the robot to other locations. Future plans for this robot include foundations, floors, roofs, and high-rise buildings (Cor, 2017).
Crane WASP is a modular 3D printing robot that is suspended from a crane structure and can utilize local, natural materials to print walls. Like Apis Cor, the Crane WASP can be setup in a modular fashion to create a larger, single story structure. A sample building called Gaia was constructed in 2012. The 15-inch thick walls were printed using 25% soil taken from the site, 40% from straw chopped rice, 25% rice husk, and 10% hydraulic limestone. Vertical voids in the walls were filled with rice husks to add more R-value to the cavity. The roof was constructed traditionally from timbers to complete the structure. The Gaia project took 10 days to complete (Team, 2018).
Technology is advancing at a rapid rate and with construction being so heavily invested, you can be sure that businesses will continue to direct resources to developing newer, better technology to advance the industry, fill the manpower gaps, and reduce dependencies on finite resources.
Eric Munt started as a senior project manager with Shingobee Builders earlier this year. He has over 15 years of experience in commercial construction and has managed projects in many different industries including banks, schools, retail, hotels, athletic facilities, multi-family housing, and health care.