For the last 50 years, while the rest of our economy has almost doubled in productivity, the construction sector has lagged behind. In fact, in just the last several years, the construction industry has seen a startling 8% decline in productivity. There are various explanations for this unfortunate phenomenon, from increased safety protocols and price-based competition, to skilled labor shortages and a slow adoption of technology. However, there are new cutting edge construction robotics technologies on the horizon that could help revive the industry- but they don’t come without controversy.
Construction robotics companies like Construction Robotics and Dusty Robotics already have robots you can purchase to help your construction team with various tasks. But, is the industry ready to embrace construction robotics? And what about job replacement? If the construction industry does adopt robots on a wide scale, what does it mean for construction workers? Sit back, we’re about to dig into all that in this article.
Robotics and Construction is a Touchy Subject
Besides high costs, many in the construction industry fear that robots could completely take over job sites and displace human workers. While perhaps a valid fear down the line, current robotics technology just isn’t there yet. Many of the robots being developed for job sites require constant human attention and skilled operation. For example, while certain robots can stand in fixed positions doing a task like laying bricks, they cannot yet move themselves around, choose different materials, and lay them in complex variations. All of this requires a human touch.
Technically, this means that robots will replace certain tasks on a jobsite. However, this could end up being a good thing. The construction industry is currently facing an extreme labor shortage. According to the Labor Department, while construction job openings jumped by 129,000 in February 2023, hiring decreased by some 18,000.
Additionally, much of the work that our robot friends take over is repetitive and dangerous. For example, in order to tie rebar, workers have to “ bend over with a roll of wire at their hip, and use pliers to tie intersections together all day for months on end.” This literally back-breaking work can be taken over by TyBot, a robot designed to continuously tie rebar with just one skilled worker overseeing it. While TyBot ties the rebar, other workers can move on to less repetitive, safer tasks.
So, will Robots Replace Us?
While robots might replace the more dangerous and repetitive tasks on a construction site, they also open up opportunities for new talent. Many young, skilled workers will have the opportunity to understand, trouble shoot, and operate advanced construction robots. At the same time, older construction vets in the industry can potentially extend their careers by preventing injuries from hard labor and focusing on less strenuous tasks.
How the Construction Industry is Using Robots
Heavy Lifting Robots
There are robots designed to aid with lifting extremely heavy objects. For example, Hadrian X, is a bricklaying robot that works to lay heavy bricks every 45 seconds. without any human intervention (besides observation). Another heavy-lifting robot in development is IronBOT, which can carry some 5,000 pounds of rebar. These robots can reduce injuries on the worksite and increase efficiency as they can lift and carry heavy objects much more quickly than a human.
Construction Layout Robots
Dusty Robotics have already unveiled their FieldPrinter robot, which can “autonomously print a full-scale model onto the construction surface.” This cute little robot zooms around your construction site drawing extremely accurate layouts in a fraction of the time it takes for a human to do it. Again, all the FieldPrinter needs is some skilled workers to set up and oversee it while it works.
Jobsite Monitoring Robots
Robots can now monitor jobsite progress with a great deal of accuracy. Doxel has created a robot that works as a kind of rover drone that scans the jobsite and spits out data. Doxel uses AI to “identify and report errors in work performed” including in mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems. The robot can then tell you how much work was done in the day, if you are falling behind in your project, and how to boost efficiency. Check out this video of Doxel’s robot in action.
There are several robots already on the market that can demolish buildings via remote-control. This gives construction crews the ability to tear down buildings from a safe distance. Some examples of demolition robots on the market are Brokk, and Husqvarna.
You may have heard of self-driving, autonomous cars. Now, that same technology is being developed for heavy machinery in construction. One example of a self-driving construction vehicle is this self-driving excavator, Exosystem, from Built Robotics. In this case, the robot itself is an attachment designed to be fitted to existing excavators. It works by using “specially designed LiDAR to accommodate for vibrations in order to see where it is going and to measure the material being excavated.” The system also uses GPS, satellite, and geofencing to move around the worksite. Although the system is autonomous, skilled workers are still required for monitoring and safety.
Implementing this Tech really Depends on how Stubborn the Construction Industry will be
Clearly, using robots can simultaneously retain skilled workers, reduce the amount of labor needed and eliminate injurious tasks. However, the construction industry has been historically slow to adapt to new tech. While other industries like agriculture and healthcare have embraced robotics, their use in construction is still limited. According to a global survey done by ABB, only 55% of construction companies use robots, while 84% in the automotive industry and 79% in manufacturing use them. However, in that same poll, 81% of companies said that they planned on implementing robotics in the near future. So, it seems like the construction industry is ready for robotics to some degree.
It remains to be seen on what scale we can expect these robots to be used. But, when they are, you can expect to see safer and more efficient worksites. However, the bottom line is that in order to use robots, we need people. We should think of robots as tools that can enhance a construction site, better our worker’s lives, and boost productivity for the industry. Unless new robotics tech advances to sci-fi-like proportions, humans remain the key ingredient for success.
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