Construction sector prepares for the robot revolution

01 May 2019
Mechanised systems are already transforming key operations in the industry. With the right action, the benefits will spread rapidly

Robots are seen as a solution to many of the structural problems facing the developed world – sagging productivity, ageing populations, swelling healthcare budgets and even epidemics of depression in an increasingly fragmented society. Of course, not everyone shares this view, and many are worried about the impact of robotics on employment and social structures.

Whatever you think of them, a revolution is occurring around mechanised systems. Software and processing technology, sensors, commercial drones, autonomous vehicles and developments around collaborative robots (co-bots) are all driving robotics capabilities to new heights. This has encouraged the uptake of millions of consumer, entertainment, service and industrial robots.

In the construction industry, robots and drones are increasingly taking the place of humans to undertake dangerous, repetitive or difficult tasks.

The technology has the potential to make construction sites safer and allow companies and workers to operate in more efficient ways.

The greater integration of robotics on construction sites can have a positive impact on worker safety. Hazardous or physically demanding tasks can be carried out by machines designed to replicate the work of staff. A robot that could carry a heavy load more quickly and easily than a human, would speed up the task without risk of injury, and improve productivity.

Robotics in construction may also facilitate greater consistency of processes and products. Controlled by computers with sensory feedback, machines can be programmed to undertake precision operations to a high standard.

As robots are increasingly being used to undertake mundane tasks, humans are able to focus on more complex challenges requiring expertise or technical knowledge, thus improving efficiency.

Case studies

US-based Sarcos Robotics has three new products of use to the construction industry. One is a small robotic snake, useful for industrial tasks such as pipeline inspection. Another is a two-armed tele-operated robot that can be used for heavy construction.

The third innovation is an exoskeleton suit that allows workers to more easily and quickly perform tasks such as lifting heavy objects or equipment.

EksoZero is an innovative exoskeleton that helps ease the physical burden on construction and electrical workers. With EksoWorks’ exoskeleton technology, workers can complete heavy hand tool tasks with less fatigue, better workmanship and fewer workplace injuries.

US-based drone manufacturer DroneDeploy has developed a technology to create aerial construction site intelligence for the surveying and construction industry.

Recommendations for construction

The construction industry is characterised by a highly disintegrated and fragmented value chain, which can hamper the flow of data and the full integration of systems and technological adoption. It has been generally slow to adopt new robotics technologies (amongst others), and remains heavily reliant on manual labour and mechanical technologies, resulting in low productivity.

The use of robotics can be complicated and requires a comprehensive understanding to use them to their full capacity. Investment in staff training is required to effectively utilise robotics in the construction industry.

Robotics technology holds the power to transform the construction industry over the longer term. However, it remains predominantly in the pilot or early development stage.

Recommendations for robotics

Technology companies should identify and address the needs of construction firms, prioritising innovations that are most appropriate for the industry. This can be achieved through ongoing consultation, engagement with companies, and acceptance of feedback.

Many construction companies are unable or unwilling to invest large amounts of money and time in robotics technology without fully understanding the potential benefits. The ability to rent or lease robotics technology, which would requirea much smaller financial obligation than full ownership, could be a far more attractive option for companies, particularly while they are learning how to fully utilise the technology.

Staff training will enable companies to take full advantage of the new technology, making them more likely to invest in the future. Robotics companies should therefore prioritise ongoing training programs for clients in the construction industry.

About the author

David Kurtz is head of construction research and analysis at GlobalData

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