Automating Construction: Why The Industry Will Eventually Embrace Robots

With the general unemployment rate in the United States at a low 4% as of January 2019, many industries fear the advent of robots that will take over jobs typically held by skilled workers. The construction industry is a different story. In the global architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, efficiency is becoming increasingly questionable and there is a stark lack of humans to fill the gaps.

Worldwide, the average large construction project takes 20% longer than planned and goes 80% over budget. There are a variety of factors that can account for these numbers, including project complexity, economic disruption, corruption, and hazardous site conditions. Perhaps the most significant is a shortage of skilled workers.

About 8.4 million people were employed within the U.S. construction industry in 2017. Yet, according to a study conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America in the same year, 70% of contractors in the U.S. struggle to hire skilled craft workers. With hiring needs in construction expected to grow 12% by 2026, this leaves the industry in a bit of bind.

That’s where robots come in. Automating elements of the construction industry is the smartest business option, but some of the world’s largest construction firms have yet to implement even the most basic technological advancements. When you consider that automated lasers are accurate within one nanometer, investing in robots seems like a no-brainer. Many companies still do everything on paper, from tracking employee hours and pay to managing supply-chain order.

It’s unclear why exactly this reluctance to move into modern technology is so prevalent, but it certainly isn’t for a lack of existing automated technology. Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering developed a robot that can autonomously drive interlocking steel sheet piles into soil.

While traditional processes for sheet pile driving are energy intensive and environmentally disruptive, the new robot has a light footprint and minimal jobsite disruption because it runs on wheels. Dubbed the “Romu robot,” the Wyss team designed the robot so that it leverages its own weight to drive the sheet piles into the ground.

Contrary to how we often think of robots, the team at Harvard designed the Romu robots to work in teams. They want to explore the possibilities of using the Romu robot teams in environmental protection and restoration projects that often suffer from a lack of human labor or site conditions that make using heavy equipment impossible. Of course, these robots also wouldn’t be restricted by the needs or wants of humans, such as taking vacation time which 92% of American employees say is important to them.

Also free from human needs, a robotic system specifically designed to sort construction and demolition debris recently made its debut as well. An American technology company, AMP Robotics, and a Japanese waste management firm, Ryoshin, teamed up to develop and sell this two-robot system.

The first robot is AI-Benkei, which can manipulate debris up to 80 pounds and process up to 27 tons an hour. AI-Musashi makes up the other half of the team and can sort through smaller pieces of debris at a rate of 160 items per minute.

Either of these autonomous technologies can go a long way in changing the operations of the construction industry. But first, the companies in the industry need to take advantage of them. Until then, they’ll be stuck with the same outdated systems they’ve always had.

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