Industrial robots and artificial intelligence are playing an increasing role in the manufacturing market. According to a study by the World Bank, Africa has a regional average of two industrial robots per 100,000 manufacturing workers.
The continent could see its emerging markets shed jobs to automation far quicker than in countries like Japan, where the move toward automation has happened, ironically, more organically through local innovation rather than imported machinery. This shift is bound to affect the construction industry given the attraction that robotics offers in the areas of efficiencies in time and cost.
Currently, in the construction industry, robotics is being used for self-operating machinery such as bulldozers, excavators, and cranes. However, the implications of this technology are far-reaching. For instance construction workers can now concentrate on more skilled-oriented tasks if robots can replace the workers in performing the more mundane jobs. This will not only bolster efficiency but also improve time management for most construction job sites.
Take Botswana, a landlocked country known for diamonds and political stability. Robots are being used in the country’s largest sector, mining, where robots are already going to depths that humans simply cannot reach, and bringing up tennis-ball sized stones. This is a testament to the resilience and accuracy that robotics can bring onto the construction industry.
The premise is that usually in order to maximize on output the greatest advantage of robots is found in making them carry out repetitive tasks, on a large scale but in construction projects robots can be adopted to tackle challenges found on construction sites in order to maximizetheir usefulness.
Types of Construction Robots
There are several different types of construction robots that are expected to break out on a massive scale into the construction industry. Among the top ones is the 3D-printing robot that is capable of putting up building structures on demand. The 3D-printing robot prints an entire structurally safe building through the help of a mobile robotic arm that is digitally pre-programmed with instructions.
This new technology is not only limited to buildings as it is now being used in building bridges, with the first ever 3D printed bridge being built in the Netherlands recently. The combination of 3D printing and industrial robots is among the most promising automation technology being witnessedin the construction industry.
Another new technology is construction robots for brick-laying masonry, with some robots even being able to layout an entire street at a go.Not only do these robots improve the quality of the construction work, but also dramatically improve the speed of construction.
The other type of construction robot that is about to break into the market is the demolition robot. Despite being slower than demolition crews, these robots are much safer and cheaper in demolishing concrete structures.
In addition to these construction robots, there are several others such as remote controlled vehicles, also known as autonomous vehicles.
Robots perform exceptionally well at repetitive tasks in a controlled environment such as a factory. By incorporating robots in large-scale manufacture of pre-fabricated elements, there will be an upstream in the industry whereby the manufacturing task will be performed in a controlled environment, and not on site.
However, construction sites are far from being a controlled environment. For robots to be profitable and productive, they need to be able to adapt to real-time variations in their environment with little or no programming. Being able to adapt and change with the environment is very difficult for robots to accomplish; however, a few robots are taking on these historically challenging tasks.
Before using robots for construction, the building site needs to be characterized, and this includes the working environment as well as the type of tasks that need to be done. Construction sites have a wide range of geographical dispersion, especially for large projects. Unlike in a factory setup, the final products are not repetitive as each project has its unique features, with different activities being done with little repetition.
On construction sites, various tasks are taking place at the same time, and these tasks are interlinked in regards to the resources allocated to each of them. Building sites are very dynamic, with systematic changes in tasks and the surrounding environment; they are also hostile and are surrounded by obstacles, uneven surfaces, equipment among others. Their unstructured nature makes them not set to accommodate the movement of robots.
In addition to that, the tasks performed at construction sites are complex in the cognitive sense, and the use of sensory capability, as well as knowledge based on experience,are highly required. Nevertheless, even tasks with repetitive operations would still require the robot to systematically change its position by shifting orientation when it begins a new cycle.
In order for robots to perform adequately in construction sites, they will need to be portable, have the ability to move around, have the ability to ‘sense’ its environment, and be able to process data or information received.
Most robots use artificial vision which is able to recognize the range of the environment in which it is operating at. Robots should also be prepared for hostile environments. As mentioned earlier, construction sites are hostile and thus robots should be able to work outdoors while moving around in difficult conditions, unprotected and should also be ready for the unexpected such as falling materials, falling from heights and the elements.
Robots should also be able to handle unwieldy or heavy loads such as beams or prefabricated panels (which can weigh several tons). They should also be able to handle fragile materials that could break such as ceramic tiles, fittings or glass.
Adopting technology such as robots in the construction industry has been met with some hesitations from industry professionals. However, experts agree that while digitization of the field as an emerging trend has the potential to remove some low-level positions, it will be several years before robotics is seen as a norm in the construction industry.
Those in the construction industry who are fearful that tech-infused solutions will take away their jobs should rest easy and be assured that automated machines will not replace human skill. This is because several tasks in the sector cannot be completed accurately and efficiently by a robot as compared to a human worker. For example, project management cannot be replaced by technology.
The benefits of using robotics in the building industry are evolving on a daily basis and are continuously being embraced on a wider scale, yet construction workers have not been put out of work. To be able to have the maximum benefit, it is necessary first to modify the conceptual understanding of the construction industry, and more specifically, the process itself.
Cheap labor is an impediment following the introduction of robotics in the industry. Implementing robotics will increase productivity while reducing the equipment and implementation costs.
Having the ability to manipulate these robots will be a good investment, given the flexibility it presents. Optimists say any adverse effects will be short-lived and robots will be a major boost in overcoming slowdowns in productivity, growth, income, and well-being.
Additionally, combining robots and 3D printing could create possibilities for small enterprises to overcome challenges such as size limits in production as well as enable them to conduct business in terms of construction on a larger scale.
As a highly unautomated industry, construction robots will have a major impact on the construction industry. As construction companies look to automate more and more tasks for the sake of efficiency and productivity, demand for construction robots will grow steadily.