Some industries, like manufacturing and air travel, have embraced automation over the years to the point where it’s ubiquitous. Others, like agriculture and fast food, have been trying for years to bring robots on board in a meaningful way and — inspired by COVID-19 and labor shortages — are getting ready for a final push. But robots in construction are a different story.
Construction sites don’t involve a whole lot of repetitive tasks. Hammering in nails requires the ability to hammer nails in different ways, at different angles, into different materials to different depths. It might feel repetitive to a human carpenter, but there’s just too much variation for a robot.
Robots also have mobility issues. If they’re able to handle uneven terrain (hint: they usually aren’t), they are likely to run out of battery power way before they finish the job.
What’s more, robots that can do any of the tasks involved in construction currently cost a lot more than human beings. Still, there are some more automation technologies that are actually working in construction right now.
Canvas, for example, makes a power drywall installer that can finish drywall in about one third of the time it usually takes. The machine only works in the hands of a union drywall technician, furnished by Canvas, and only in the Bay Area. “Until now, the equivalent innovation hasn’t been possible in construction,” Canvas said when they launched their public offering earlier this month, “due to the highly dynamic nature of the built environment.”
That’s a good way to put it.
Drywall workers have the highest rate of musculoskeletal disorders among carpenters, with 20% to 24% reporting painful conditions after 20 years of work in the field, typically in their early 40s. This is a good kind of work to automate.
And the Canvas machine has done a good job at some high-profile building sites over the past year. They might become a national game-changer.
Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning is key to the Canvas drywall machine, and LIDAR is used more extensively in construction than any other automated technology. Pulased lasers can measure distances and plot shapes digitally, which can be a very useful skill on a construction site. Not exactly a robot, is it?
Combined with drones, however, LIDAR can increase safety at construction sites.
Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, has some real-world applications on the construction site. Extruded cement or polymers can create parts quickly.
There have been quite a few completely printed buildings. Most are proof of concept and not used as a traditional building would be (nobody is living in them, for example), but this is one of the most promising options for automating construction.
Excavators and bulldozers can do a lot of their work without a driver. Built Robotics makes autonomous bulldozers and 40-ton excavators.
Since traffic and pedestrians are not major issues at construction sites, autonomous vehicle technology faces fewer challenges at a construction site than on the highway.
Built Robotics machines have sensors that prevent them from running into people or animals, and they can be limited to a specific geographic area.
They use LIDAR, and they are not as fast as a human being. However, they can get in and do their work overnight, making sure that the site is ready for the human workers first thing in the morning. Staying on schedule and limiting waiting are the important fruits of this technology.
Automation might be changing construction for good. In the meantime, if you need service or support for your Rexroth industrial automation systems, contact us immediately. We are specialists, and we can get your facility back up and running fast.