Posted on Oct 30, 2015

When you think of robots, you likely conjure up images of C3P0 and R2D2 in “Star Wars,” the cyborgs from the “Terminator” or, closer to reality, the high-tech machines in auto factories.

And now, as costs decline and availability increases, robots are slowly showing up on construction jobs and may soon become commonplace.

It’s About Safety

In the construction industry danger lurks everywhere, whether crews are working on homes or installing girders on skyscrapers. Safety issues are paramount; there are inherent risks every step of the way toward completion of a project.

As a result, industry leaders continually look for ways to promote greater safety, streamline processes and improve efficiency. Enter robots.

According to Inside Unmanned Systems, a magazine that analyzes technology and related developments in construction and other industries, the trend toward robotics in construction can be traced back to the 1990s. At that time, a large Japanese company spent significant amounts of money to develop robots for use in construction. But it had limited success. Consequently, the firm shifted its emphasis to demolition and developed robots that could crush concrete and cut through steel reinforcements.

Improved Demolition Robots

An improved wave of demolition robots recently entered the marketplace. Utilizing new technology, a robot can scan a building, plan for its demolition and essentially flatten it — all without any significant human interaction.

One of the latest innovations is the ERO Concrete Recycling Robot from Sweden. Using water pressure, it separates concrete from rebar and other debris, makes cement slurry, and sends it off to be packed and shipped to concrete precast stations for reuse.

However, these systems can’t autonomously sense, think and act on their own. So the question remains: Can robots be used as independent construction workers?

Taking the Next Step

Many in the construction industry believe that the answer is “yes.” Notably, they point to three new robotic systems:

  1. The Semi-Automated Masonry (SAM) system, developed by Construction Robotics, is generating considerable buzz. SAM is a bricklaying robot that is designed to work with a mason. As the robotic system lifts and places mortared bricks, the mason concentrates on site setup, tooling joints, finishing and quality. SAM can lay roughly 230 bricks an hour and can handle varying brick sizes without difficulty. The machine is being used in the construction of a new high school at The Lab School in Washington, D.C.
  2. FlexBrick, a robotic assembly process for nonstandard brickwork. Developed by ROB

Technologies AG of Switzerland, this device has been licensed to Keller AG Ziegeleien, a Swiss company specializing in structural systems, façades, interiors and tunnels. The machine currently is being used to construct a façade for a winery and three residential blocks in Switzerland, a wall for a stadium in Manchester, England, and acoustically active wall panels for a concert hall in Frankfurt, Germany. ROB Technologies has also rolled out a prefabrication system for masonry façades that is designed to handle every brick differently.

  1. A tiling machine developed by ROB Technologies in partnership with research program Future Cities Laboratory. Future Cities is a part of the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability. The prototype has been tested at a public housing construction site in Singapore. This machine can lay tiles two to three times faster than humans and can increase productivity four-fold because it can work 24/7. FLC says it expects to have a semi-autonomous robotic tiling machine “on the shelves” by the end of 2015. It’s also collaborating with two other partners on a new version of the machine.

Boosting Human Strength

And, of course, there’s the potential of exoskeletons. For an image of a robotic exoskeleton, think of Robert Downey’s “Iron Man” suit or Sigourney Weaver stepping into a power loader in “Aliens.” Exoskeletons are mobile frameworks worn a bit like a suit. They significantly augment a person’s strength.

One exoskeleton is being developed by Ekso Bionics of Richmond, California. It has an unpowered frame that allows it to be used all day (an earlier version could be used only for limited amounts of time due to battery life).

The Ekso product allows the user to lift power tools as if they weigh nothing at all. Similar exoskeletons may be able to be worn by workers in construction jobs that involve extensive lifting, standing and squatting.

As the construction industry grows, the need for innovation and automation increases. With advances in robotics and exoskeleton suits, the industry is likely to become safer and more efficient. Even firms with modest objectives might consider how they could put robotics to good use.