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Robots, drones, and 3D printers aren’t going to replace human construction workers anytime soon — but they will help improve project efficiency and safety.
As the “fourth industrial revolution” continues to unfold, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the future of pretty much every industry on the planet will depend upon automation. Robots and computers can already perform many physical tasks more efficiently, safely, and cost-effectively than humans can, and rapidly maturing artificial intelligence (AI) is laying solid groundwork for the automation of cognitive tasks as well.
As automated technologies continue to improve, there’s been an understandable amount of consternation about widespread job loss, especially in fields centered around physical labor. However, workers in the construction industry can breathe a collective sigh of release — the expert consensus is that it’s unlikely their jobs will be on the line anytime in the near future.
“The goal is completely autonomous operations,” admits Jamie Williamson, Executive VP of Topcon Positioning Systems’ Precision Automation Group, “but it is a very uncertain timeline, [because] a construction job site is forever changing.”
Surprisingly, it seems the construction workforce may already be aware of this fact. According to a Pew poll, 82% of workers whose jobs “mostly involve manual labor” believe that their jobs will either “definitely” or “probably” exist in fifty years. I say “surprisingly,” because considering how much has been made of job loss due to automated tech in the manufacturing industry, you’d think construction workers would be a little more concerned.
But, as highlighted in a recent article published by McKinsey, slight differences between manufacturing and construction tasks justify this confidence. The article explains that “currently demonstrated technology” is capable of performing 78% of “predictable physical work” like welding and soldering on an assembly line, food preparation, and packaging objects. Conversely, such technology can only handle 25% of “unpredictable physical work,” which construction is categorized under (along with forestry and animal husbandry).
Today — and probably for the foreseeable future — the most effective deployments of automated technologies in the construction industry will be alongside human workers — not in lieu of them. As Anastasios Koutsogiannis, writing for GenieBelt, explains, “In order for the use of robotics in construction to be successful, there’s a strong need for combining the robot and human presence in a way that they supplement each other.”
Striking the proper human-automation balance requires a deep understanding of the technological tools we have at our disposal, and as such, we’ve assembled a primer on three of the cutting-edge automated technologies that are already beginning to redefine construction as we know it.
Drones – whether remote-controlled or fully-autonomous – have the potential to significantly expand the perspective and reach of human construction workers. By fitting nimble drones with high-resolution cameras, laser scanners, and gyroscopic stabilizers, construction professionals are able to accomplish previously difficult (and often dangerous) tasks, such as pipeline and cell-tower inspections or mine explorations, from the safety and comfort of an worksite trailer. When outfitted with the proper equipment, drones can do everything from detect a gas leak to deliver building materials to hard-to-reach areas.
Drones are particularly useful for facilitating 3D scans of a construction environment. Whether a company is attempting to perform an earthworks estimate or gain a detailed understanding of an existing structure, having access to as much data as possible is absolutely essential. These days, much of a project’s critical data is consolidated via building information modeling (BIM), but gathering the information underlying these models can be a challenge. Thanks to emerging drone technologies, now it doesn’t have to be.
Last year, Japanese construction giant Komatsu paired Skycatch drones with self-driving bulldozers to create fully-autonomous earthmoving and demolition processes. The scanner-equipped drones transmit real-time 3D models of a construction worksite to the unmanned bulldozers, enabling the heavy machinery to maneuver around the worksite and accomplish their assigned tasks without human intervention.
Komatsu’s push toward automation isn’t unique. Caterpillar has already developed autonomous mining trucks (which would presumably function equally well on a construction worksite) that are guided by a combination of environmental sensors and a single centralized human overseer.
This is a natural next step in the development of construction machinery, as systems capable of automated “predictable physical work” like street laying, masonry, and concrete dispensing have been in use for years.
As a means of transforming a building project into a predictable endeavor from start to finish, 3D printing arguably represents the most comprehensive approach to construction automation. Find a plot of empty land, set up the printer, and let it create a building from scratch…what could be more hands-off?
Widespread, large-scale use of 3D printers in the construction industry is still a ways off, but as John Hainsworth, Digital Leader for the Built Environment at engineering firm Aurecon, predicts, “If [a building] doesn’t need to be a thing of beauty and it just needs to be rapidly produced, then it’s only a matter of time before [3D printing] is seen to be viable.”
From China to California to Dubai, construction firms are experimenting with printing entire buildings at once, but in the short-term, most contractors stand to gain the most by using 3D printers to produce smaller building components like electric sockets, girder brackets, floor panels, and wall sections. In addition to its general technological immaturity, building regulations — many of which have been fine-tuned over the span of decades — represent a very real hurdle for 3D printing, as, unlike in manufacturing where 3D printing is already thriving, in construction there is next to no room for error in terms of structural integrity.
At this point, it’s unlikely this technology will replace traditional construction techniques any time soon. However, with the proper technological advances and regulatory adjustments, it’s entirely possible that a number of years down the line, the most important person on the jobsite will be the one who understands how to communicate the project design plans to the printer.
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