Until recently, the construction industry still relied on many manual labor processes, which serve as the basis for a larger series of tasks or operations. Many feel the efficiency and productivity of the industry has yet to meet its true potential.
For example, from 2005 to 2015, construction saw an average year-over-year growth in digitization and productivity of 4%, one of the lowest industries recorded in a comprehensive McKinsey report. In addition, nearly 200,000 construction jobs were left unfulfilled by February 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There’s no growth, and there’s a huge demand for potential workers. It’s the perfect storm for a robotics disruption.
Certain technologies are coming or currently being implemented that will help shape the future of the construction industry. Particularly, advanced robotics can help replace or improve existing processes, making them more efficient as well as more accurate.
Unfortunately, robots don’t play a huge role right now, and that’s true whether the focus is on residential and commercial construction or renovation-based projects. This role will soon change, and it will mean an incredibly transformative experience for the entire industry.
In light of expected changes, here are five ways that modern and advanced robotics will disrupt construction throughout the coming year.
1. Lower operating costs
Implementing robots and automation can be a catch-22. On the one hand, there are many benefits to automating tasks, especially rote and tedious ones. The related equipment also tends to be more efficient, precise and less expensive in the long run when compared to manual labor.
On the other hand, robots take away the human aspect of operations. In construction, this change can be a problem, because craftsmanship adds an extra layer of value to projects.
Cobots, or collaborative robots, may be a solution the construction industry needs. They’re designed to work alongside human counterparts, as opposed to replacing them entirely.
Cobots tend to augment and improve productivity by carrying out tasks that would otherwise be considered busywork for employees. They can also significantly lower operating costs by cutting down on the amount of labor needed for a project.
It’s worth noting that cobots have the added effect of changing how work-related relationships and collaboration work, for obvious reasons.
In this regard, robots are poised to alter the way we interact with the world and each other in many ways, which could result in a dynamic shift within construction and development teams where people not only change roles, but adapt to less interactive tasks as well.
If someone is working alongside a robot all day as opposed to another person, for example, it might alter how they feel about work, good or bad. We have yet to see how this change will impact worker performance and sentiment.
2. Improved efficiency on repeatable tasks
Human workers deal with a variety of personal and environmental elements that robots do not. For example, they get tired, burned out, or even bored with their work. Family or personal problems can affect the quality of their work.
Robots, obviously, have none of these issues. They can continue to operate, indefinitely at about the same rate and quality, given the need for maintenance or other kind of failure. Preventive maintenance can eliminate this possibility, keeping the equipment running for much longer periods of time. As a result, robots and automated systems offer a much higher level of efficiency compared with human counterparts. Many say that alone is worth the cost and resources to implement.
For example, Construction Robotics’ SAM100 masonry robot can lay up to 350 bricks per hour in either a standard brick pattern or soldier courses. That is much faster than most, if not all, human bricklayers.
3. On-demand and custom development
Traditional construction projects have many steps, from planning and development to the actual construction or assembly process. For many years, this process has been the same, with little change. The development of 3D printing, specifically 3D-printing robots, will change the current makeup.
Additive manufacturing creates unprecedented scaling opportunities for on-demand and custom development projects. Being able to print prefabricated parts or components on site helps eliminate the need to transport large goods or materials.
It has the potential to lower overhead costs, cut down on project completion times and allow for more nuanced project changes. If a customer doesn’t like how a particular prefab turned out, it’s a simple tweak with a minimal loss of resources and time compared to conventional development methods.
4. Wearables, augmentation and automation
Robotics can also be used to augment abilities. Ekso Bionics offers a working exoskeleton that will not only improve the mobility of the wearer but also make them stronger and less prone to work-related injuries.
It can help eliminate a lot of the stress and damage that occurs to a body during physical labor too. Imagine workers suddenly being able to lift hundreds of pounds more without hurting their body. That’s exactly the kind of thing that’s possible through modern wearables and biotics.
In addition to augmenting workers’ abilities, some robotics will offer opportunities to automate parts of projects altogether.
“In the future, I do think we’ll see a lot of autonomous equipment out on job sites,” said Noah Ready-Campbell, founder and CEO of Built Robotics, “but I also would emphasize that we’ll need plenty of workers, too. People are just much better at improvising and making judgment calls, and that’s critical, especially in the early stages of a product.”
So, if you’re worried about robots completely taking over construction work, never fear. Industry experts like Ready-Campbell are adamant that we will continue to need human workers on construction sites. Instead, it’s likely that robotics, Ready-Campbell says, will take over the boring work:
“As the technology matures, I think robots will perform the bulk of the repetitive work, especially where precision and consistency are important, and humans will focus on the more creative and dynamic parts of the job.”
According to Ready-Campbell, the typical large-scale commercial construction project runs 80% over budget and 20 months behind schedule. Robotics companies like Built Robotics and others are able to address these shortcomings and complete construction projects faster, safer and cheaper.
“Our autonomous equipment can do the more dangerous or repetitive aspects of the job, enabling skilled operators to focus on the challenging tasks, and letting contractors complete more work and get more done,” Ready-Campbell said.
5. Logistics and management
Beyond simple robotics, artificial intelligence and related software can be used to handle the logistics and management side of operations. Workers can be outfitted with mobile devices, which the system can communicate with to deliver up-to-date orders, requests and information.
This setup can do more than just improve productivity — it can improve safety, streamline collaborative tasks and projects and completely transform the way development teams work.
Instead of receiving orders from a shift supervisor or conventional manager, for example, workers might be given orders by an AI system that has already identified ways to speed up or improve the entire operation.
Change is coming
One thing is certain when looking at the numbers from McKinsey’s study — the construction industry clearly needs to step up and implement more modern technologies and digital experiences.
An ideal way to improve would be to adopt the kind of robotics, automation and AI solutions discussed here.
Change is coming, no matter how slowly. These opportunities are sure to disrupt the construction industry over the coming year if not further into the future.