Innovative robots promise greater precision, speed and safety, but will they address the global talent shortage and meet the social-distancing challenges presented by Covid-19?
It’s a brutal time for the construction industry. In Britain, the sector has suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years as the Covid-19 lockdown shuts building sites and suppliers. “We expect at least three to six months of delays with interruptions in construction programmes, supply chain delays and labour shortages,” says Mike Cracknell, a director at multinational professional services network Deloitte. “The latest London office crane survey suggests many new central London offices expected to complete in 2020 will be postponed until next year.”
It’s a similar picture elsewhere across the globe. US home building has plunged to a five-year low, and the country’s overall construction output is expected to drop by 6.6 per cent in 2020 – the equivalent of $122.4bn. Meanwhile in China, many projects not deemed crucial remain abandoned for lack of workers. This has contributed to the country reporting its first economic decline on record.
While efforts are being made to remobilise, business, as usual, will be a long time coming. Labour shortages remain a major problem, and new social-distancing guidelines have been deemed ‘impossible’ to adhere to.
As if this wasn’t enough, Covid-19 is only the latest in a long line of problems.
“Bill Gates recently tweeted that, due to rising world population, there will be a need to construct the equivalent of a New York City every month between now and 2060,” explains Steve Pierz, chief innovation officer at Australian industrial automation firm FBR. “This demand for construction is too high to meet. Already most construction jobs are either late or over budget. Team this with the fact that there’s a burgeoning talent shortage as fewer young people are entering the trade, and it’s easy to see why the entire industry is a train wreck waiting to happen. As Einstein once said, you can’t fix today’s problems with yesterday’s technology. Something needs to change.”
Pierz believes the answer lies in robotics. “Repetitive heavy tasks are no good for humans,” he says. “Many key processes in construction have not changed for decades. When it comes to masonry, methods haven’t changed for millennia. Automation will change the game – and FBR’s solution is perfectly placed to disrupt construction in the same way that Uber and Airbnb have disrupted their markets.”
FBR’s innovation is Hadrian X, a bricklaying robot that can build the walls of a house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms in under three days. Speed isn’t its only redeeming feature. Pierz says Hadrian X is more efficient, more accurate and safer than human labour.
“Building the average house generates 17 cubic metres of waste, which has significant costs both financially and environmentally,” he explains. “Most of this waste is attributed to errors and over-ordering. Hadrian X builds from a 3D CAD model with an exact bill of materials, producing far less waste than traditional construction methods. Not only this, but Hadrian X is a fully autonomous system where no human hand need ever touch a brick. This addresses talent shortage issues and solves social-distancing problems, too.”
Hadrian X isn’t the only robot set to disrupt the industry. US engineering and robotics design company Boston Dynamics has built the Spot robot to go where others can’t. Unlike wheeled and tracked robots that are limited by stairs, gaps, ground-level obstructions such as cabling and minor height differences in flooring, Spot can navigate tough unstructured, unknown or antagonistic terrain with ease.
“By integrating Spot with software and sensors, customers in the construction space are using the robot to continuously document construction progress with image data, take automated laser scans to compare as-built conditions to building information modelling (BIM), track work-in-place and monitor work health and safety standards on job sites,” explains Brian Ringley, Boston Dynamics’ construction technology manager. “Spot takes people out of risky or hazardous situations. During our current pandemic, its use is more relevant than ever.”
San Francisco-based construction technology company HoloBuilder has developed a special integration with the Spot robot, which brings autonomous, 360-degree photo capture to construction projects. Harry Handorf, a spokesperson for the company, says this combination of technology, called ‘SpotWalk’, addresses the core productivity inefficiencies that continue hampering the construction industry.
“The integration enables reliable, automated 360-degree photo documentation to create a consistently updated single source of truth and, at the same time, it is freeing up valuable time for site teams that can work on mission-critical tasks like coordinating work on-site or managing risk instead of repeatedly taking photos,” he says. “What’s more, with our HoloBuilder technology, stakeholders get remote site access from anywhere by simply opening the digital progress record of any construction site in their web browser on any device. This has proven to be especially valuable during the current times of limited travel when many people are working from home.”
‘Many key processes in construction have not changed for decades. When it comes to masonry, methods haven’t changed for millennia. Automation will change the game.’ Steve Pierz, FBR
We’re also seeing an increase in the use of 3D-printing robots. US start-up ICON has developed 3D-printing robotics software and advanced materials capable of 3D-printing entire houses in around 24 hours. The firm has recently teamed up with New Story, a non-profit focused on ending global homelessness, in a bid to create the world’s first 3D-printed community. Construction is officially underway and they have revealed the first set of homes in Mexico. The 500-square feet (46m2) homes will be part of a larger community plan for the overall municipal area.
There are also pockets of innovation cropping up to transform concrete building construction. “The concrete industry is the largest sub-sector of construction,” explains Asbjørn Søndergaard, chief technology officer at Danish construction technology firm Odico. “The single largest expense is making the formwork – the mould you pour the concrete into to make the finished result. This typically represents 50 per cent of the cost and can be as high as 85 per cent if structures are advanced. Not only this, but the concrete industry produces four times the amount of CO2 emissions of global air traffic. That’s why we are commercialising hotwire cutting using robots.”
Søndergaard’s robot can create geometrically complex designs with up to 70 per cent less concrete than traditional methods, bringing significant improvements in efficiency and with a lower carbon footprint to boot.
The benefits of robotic wire-cutting have been realised in the Kirk Kapital building in Denmark, for which Odico robots processed and manufactured 4,500 cubic metres of formwork for what would become the world’s first example of a concrete construction using this technology. Odico also automated the production of aluminium profiles for the Opus Building in Dubai, speeding up output by 300 per cent.
“So far we’ve helped automate 250 projects in seven countries,” says Søndergaard. “We are hoping to help even more with our Factory On The Fly – our latest innovation which packs our robot technology into an easily transportable unit such as standard 20-foot shipping containers. Users can control it using standard iOS or Android tablets.”
Factory On The Fly can be configured to perform a broad range of different manufacturing tasks from formwork production, to reinforcement bending and sheet cutting. By automating the manufacturing of products with custom dimensions at robotic speed, Factory On The Fly helps users save costs and speed up traditionally time-consuming processes.
Meanwhile, Norwegian automation company Rebartek has developed a robot solution for the prefabrication of rebar cages. Rebar is construction slang for ‘concrete steel reinforcement bars’ – the bars that give the concrete its tensile strength.
“Today, the installation of rebar is extremely labour-intensive and, as a result, very unproductive,” says Max Trommer, the firm’s CEO. “It’s like someone having to dig a giant hole, but only having a shovel to do it. While rebar cage prefabrication is a known method, it is done mostly manually today.”
Prefabricating the cages save 90 per cent of time and labour on the critical path of a construction project. “Our robotic solution for the prefabrication increases productivity tenfold and enables the construction of advanced designs,” Trommer says.
However, despite the promise of these technologies, uptake so far has been confined to the pioneering few.
“The construction industry lags way behind other sectors when it comes to embracing automation,” says Pierz. “This is mainly because leaders in the industry are afraid to change. They are used to the chronic pain of working in an industry where it is normal to deliver late and over budget. They find it too risky to try something completely different. It makes sense when you think about it – 80 per cent of a firm’s future work depends on what they have done in the past. If they take a risk and screw up, then they might not get a second chance.”
Lee Wilkinson, a director in PwC’s construction team, agrees: “While it’s clear that embracing technology and innovation can have a positive impact on overall efficiency and sustainability, it will require a shift in mindset by both main contractors and clients for it to become the norm.”
There’s also a widespread fear that robots might mean a loss of jobs, but Pierz is quick to offer reassurance. “The jobs that robots will be doing tend to be the least desirable jobs,” he says. “What’s more, robots will create far more jobs than they displace. Take the example of ATMs. In the 1990s, many believed they would eliminate the bank teller position. However, today there are more bank tellers in the US than there were back then. They are doing higher-value work, which is far more interesting. Humans are fantastic at doing a wide variety of things, whereas robots tend to do one thing very well. We should be talking about humans and robots, not humans or robots.”
In fact, robots might address the growing talent shortage problem. According to a study by L&Q Group, fewer than one in ten young people would consider a career in construction, even though more than half are interested in subjects that qualify them for the industry. “Construction has traditionally been an old-fashioned industry with a low degree of innovation and a high degree of machismo – there’s definitely the feeling that ‘we have always done it like this, so why should we change’,” says Trommer. “This makes our industry quite unattractive for the smartest minds. By bringing bleeding-edge technology into the industry and pushing boundaries, we make it more attractive for talent to choose a career path in our industry.”
Pierz feels strongly about this, too: “We need to make the industry sexy again – and what better way than adding in the latest technology? Think about how popular ‘Minecraft’ is with kids. We’re making that a reality!”
Ultimately, while there is still a way to go before the industry takes full advantage of today’s innovations, there are encouraging signs for a sector that is ripe for disruption.
“We expect the focus on automation to continue over the coming years,” says David Wright, a partner at Deloitte. “Organisations that have not started to implement intelligent automation will begin to do so. Those that have experimented with automation in one area of their business will begin to scale these up across the whole organisation.”
Trommer believes, in the short term, the quickest way for robots to enter is to build more or less the same structures but in a more automated and productive way. “We see robots laying bricks, plastering walls, tying rebars and moving construction machinery autonomously,” he says.
Yet this is only the start. “The phase we are in right now is equivalent to someone giving us a new tool, let’s say a nail-gun, and we don’t know how to use it properly yet,” Trommer explains. “That’s why we use the nail-gun as a hammer. Right now, the industry still wants faster horses.”
In the long term, however, Trommer believes we need to rethink the way we build more radically to enable the full potential of automation. “We need to think about materials, structures, processes, trades and contracts,” he says. “What is really adding value in the end? I am very fascinated by what Musk has done to the space industry. We used to have single-use rockets, each launch costing billions, built throughout years in clean-room laboratories. Now he has reusable rockets and blue-collar welders building them in tents in the desert and is outcompeting the whole industry. I think construction is like the pre-SpaceX space industry – it’s extremely mature for disruption. Robotics will be a part of the disruption, and within the right framework, they can become a very powerful technology. We will be able to build far better, and in completely new ways.”