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The Smartest Tool in the Shed
By John Biggs
January 22, 2018
The point has finally been reached where the robotic future we’ve been promised for decades seems on the verge of coming true. With that comes many questions about what human workers’ role will be in a world where automated machines are capable of performing even complex construction work. And while it’s true that over the coming decades some simpler jobs may be taken over by robotic workers, skilled humans will almost certainly be in high demand in the industry forever.
Automated factories churning out pre-fabricated homes are a prime example of how robots can be used to enhance productivity without putting people out of work. These assembly line-style warehouses semi-autonomously pre-assemble parts of a structure to be transported to the construction site and fitted together by human workers, who then work on the finishing touches inside the completed structures. Machines doing the fabrication while a human worker operates the machines is faster, and safer, than a human worker doing the work all by themselves. Prefabrication is a trend that has been slower to take off stateside, but is exploding internationally. According to eSub, 16% of homes in Japan are built using prefabrication, and in Sweden, 40%.
Some automated technology can do jobs that would be dangerous if not flat-out impossible for humans. Drones are taking off in a big way in the construction world, with unmanned drones being utilized to do aerial surveys of construction sites, take photos of progress from angles humans can’t reach, and provide real-time progress reports to humans on the ground, even remotely. Drones can even perform safety monitoring tasks on structures like bridges, which previously posed a potential safety risk to human workers. Often available for under $1,000, drones are quickly becoming a valuable tool for construction professionals, with a low upfront cost that results in huge safety and efficiency improvements.
We’ve written about the SAM 100, the automated brick-laying robot that can autonomously lay up to 5 times the number of bricks as a human bricklayer per day, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg in how automation is finding its way to heavy machinery. Construction giants like Komatsu, Caterpillar, Volvo and others have already introduced autonomous or semi-autonomous dozers and excavators that are already being used for construction site prep. They’re programmed (by a human) to perform excavation work or move materials to exact specifications, with greatly reduced risk of damaging the surface or digging too deep, while at the same time eliminating the need for manual grade checking along the way. According to Komatsu, using its Intelligent Machine Control (iMC) excavator can result in efficiency improvements of up to 60% over human-driven machines. Drones can also be used in tandem with automated heavy machinery, feeding 3D models of construction sites to the equipment via computer relay, which can then plot or adjust its course as needed.
Last year there were approximately 200,000 unfilled construction jobs in the US alone. With the industry having rebounded to pre-Great Recession levels over the last decade, business is back to boom times, but with fewer skilled workers on its rolls. There is also a dearth of up-and-coming trained workers set to take the place of retiring construction professionals, further squeezing the industry to find efficiencies and look to alternate labor resources. If this trend continues, it’s likely the use of robots, drones and automated heavy machinery will be deployed to free up human workers for more precision work at an even greater pace.
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