Time is valuable. It’s a cliché but a constant in the construction sector.
The question is, can technology speed up the process once shovels hit the ground and, more importantly, can robots eventually cut costs and offset the shortage of skilled trades?
Technology and robotics are increasingly being deployed in the construction sector but there is still a long way to go from mainstream.
From drones programmed to record location progress, mapping terrain and boundaries, robotic machines to build brick and block walls, laying paving stones, 3D printing with compacted concrete, robots to mud and drywall tape, to robotic “dogs” that patrol the Sites to record progress, provide security and more.
Then there are demolition robots, rebar strapping robots, exoskeletons, and factories where robots take out panels for modular homes and offices.
These machines already exist and are used daily all over the world and, to some extent, in Canada.
We will see more and more of them driven by concerns about labor shortages and the drive for efficiency, says Marie Van Buren, president of the Canadian Building Association.
Humans will still be needed in the mix, she says, but a robot programmed to do repetitive tasks runs faster and longer.
“With the shortage of manpower and the epidemic, they are not all doing human work, they complement humans. Even in hotels, you order room service and the robot brings it for you.
Transfer of knowledge from those sectors to construction is inevitable, and as new generations familiar and comfortable with technology move through the ranks of the sector, there is less resistance and a greater willingness to innovate.
“We are involved with U15 (a group of 15 Canadian universities) and when I looked at their website there were more than 200 projects related to robotics, she says, noting that this push in research and development is coming to the sites.
Some companies, like Pomerlo, are testing a robotic dog, Spot, built by Boston Dynamics. Originally created for the US Army, the civilian version has a 360-degree camera that monitors progress on site.
It feeds into a software platform that provides progress details day by day, week by week, or month by month. These turn the map into 3D models for step-by-step verification.
Boston Dynamics says Spot has replaced the 20 hours a week a human employee spends on tasks at a typical 500,000-square-foot site. This was only the first month, says Boston Dynamics, that Spot streams 5,000 images a week and is also automated, providing further human labor loading and indexing.
Moreover, Spot works at night and weekends without breaks, except for changing the battery. Current improvements include a Trimble laser scanner.
At the Bruce nuclear facility where a massive, $25 billion, multi-year renovation is underway to 2060, robots are about to be deployed to insert the Calandria tubes and then the fuel tubes themselves inside.
Work with the machines will begin next spring with ATS Automated Tooling Systems based in Cambridge, Ontario. Machinery supply. There will be two machines and the plan is to take small steps to deploy the bots in the renovation.
Ultimately, they expect to save up to 50 percent in costs by speeding up the repetitive process of inserting tubes.
In some ways, Van Buren adds, the increasing deployment of robotics and artificial intelligence in construction may create problems of its own. The recent pandemic along with the overcrowded Suez Canal and bottlenecks at container ports showed just how quickly supply chain disruption can spread to an economy.
Likewise, robotic machines have an insatiable appetite for materials for processing if they are to be cost-effective.
This is a twofold problem. First, the construction sector needs consistent and sustainable materials, a demand that is growing with automated processes. Second, delays in green lighting pipelines or waiting for zoning approvals only serve to disrupt projects.
“It requires predictability across the entire supply chain,” she says, both soft components such as approvals and the supply of materials themselves.
The problem of labor supply may be solved to some extent by robots but a human factor will still be required.
“We need a 25-year outlook and we need a better partnership with counties and municipalities to stop the boom and bust cycle with better planning to become more efficient.”
Even as current technology advances, Karl Haas, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Waterloo, looks to the future and says the trend he’s seeing is augmented reality in construction.
His work focuses on technology in construction, for example, he created RFID technology for on-site inventory tracking and developed 3D imaging to create digital models of structures to automatically track progress during construction.
He says virtual reality (VR) allows an inside look at the project. Layering other technology like artificial intelligence and robotics, he says, is opening up new worlds, noting that he just saw a concept of robotics to inspect, diagnose, and repair train carriages.
“Virtual reality can increase planning for critical factors, and make construction and maintenance more efficient,” he says.
However, he doesn’t see things like exoskeletons take off, and he adds robots, even with other technologies, aren’t a panacea or a magic wand.
“There’s someone inside, there’s a lot that can go wrong,” he warns.
While bots are efficient and productive when everything is going well, they don’t perform well when they encounter something outside their programming, like buried rocks or some other obstacle.
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