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By Erica Sweeney
December 4, 2017
Are robots the answer to some of the construction industry’s problems, such as workforce shortages and productivity issues? The folks at San Francisco-based Built Robotics think so.
The company has developed a suite of software that can turn existing construction equipment and heavy machinery into autonomous vehicles, explains Kelly Dillon, Built Robotics’ head of people operations.
Think self-driving cars but on a larger scale and with jobs to do. The software is designed for the requirements and needs of the construction industry, essentially turning diggers into robots that can work with precision for long hours.
“We currently have a retrofitted skid-steer that we can direct via computer to dig holes and move dirt,” Dillon says.
So far, she says, the company has completed a few pilot projects. Over the next few months, the goal is to continue research and development.
Projects like these were exactly what Noah Ready-Campbell, the founder and the CEO of Built Robotics had in mind, when he set up the company about two years ago. His main aim has been using technology to solve some of construction’s biggest issues—specifically, workforce shortages, productivity, and safety.
Improving Productivity in Construction
Built Robotics has assembled a team of engineers, construction experts, and robotics experts with the goal of disrupting the construction industry and finding a new way to build. Dillon says the company plans to hire a vice president of construction to manage all construction aspects as they prepare to deploy their robots.
Recently, the company has raised $15 million in a round of funding led by venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates.
A recent McKinsey Global Institute report highlighted the construction industry’s growing productivity problem. Globally, construction labor-productivity averaged approximately one per cent growth per year over the past 20 years, much lower than the total world economy productivity growth rate of 2.8 per cent a year or 3.6 per cent for manufacturing.
“There’s a sense that the industry is on the verge of disruption, and industry players are actively working on new approaches,” the report said. “How organizations are preparing to deal with the disruption varies greatly—though most recognize that failure to adapt could result in being left behind.”
The McKinsey report listed rethinking and realigning design and engineering processes as one way to increase productivity. Many construction-industry leaders and business owners also point to technology as a way to improve productivity and solve workforce issues.
The Future of Construction
Finding and retaining skilled workers continues to cause problems for the industry, and some believe it could stymie industry growth.
Nearly all of the contractors surveyed for the third quarter USG + U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index said they expected growth over the next year. However, access to a skilled workforce is proving to be challenging. Sixty per cent reported that they struggle to find workers, and 91 per cent said they are concerned about the skill level of the workforce.
Additionally, the construction workforce is aging. The median age was 42.7 in 2016, compared to 41 for the overall U.S. workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Construction also remains one of the most dangerous occupations, with the number of fatal work injuries in the private construction industry at its highest level since 2008.
Technology, such as Built Robotics’ solution to retrofit construction equipment with autonomous software, could help lessen the impact of these issues.
Built Robotics’ autonomous track loader can do some of the most dangerous and repetitive tasks on the jobsite, which would let skilled operators focus on more challenging tasks, Dillon suggests. Plus, robots can work longer hours and, since they are controlled by software, they can work more efficiently, precisely, and safely.
The key is getting the industry to recognize how a new approach can be a major problem-solver and take construction into the future.
“Seasoned construction folks tend to be very practical, and at first, they are a little skeptical about this technology,” Dillon explains. “But, as they learn more, they see that it addresses some of the core issues facing construction, and the overall responses has been very positive.”
If you liked this article here are a few eBooks you may enjoy:
How Construction Technology is Saving Time, Money, and Jobs
Keeping Your Technology Up to Date
Technology Chargeback in the Construction Industry
The robots are coming: Autonomous vehicles on the jobsite
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