The rise of robots in construction – Benefits, and barriers

Construction plays a significant role in the global economy, making up 10 % of GDP in developed countries and more than 25 % in developing countries. Due to the demographic and economic developments, the number of the world’s high-rise buildings is growing rapidly.

However, the degree of automation in construction is far less than in other industries, such as manufacturing. The lack of automation results in poor productivity and risky working conditions, especially when the number of young workers decreases at construction sites due to the aging population in many countries in the world.

Thanks to robots and the rapid development of computer hardware and software in the past few decades, automation can bring new opportunities to construction today. Proven to be more robust, safe, efficient, accurate, and productive, robots can efficiently reduce construction time and increase safety by replacing humans in dangerous operations in the dynamic and unstructured construction environment.

Unlike conventional, labor-intensive, and relatively high-cost construction processes that require highly skilled workmen to achieve sufficient and consistent quality, automated construction systems, powered by robots, can support numerous applications such as concrete works, painting & finishing works, construction of roads, equipment & safety management, progress monitoring, and remote operation, accident warning, etc.

They can stabilize the construction process and improve productivity by establishing a comfortable working environment suitable to employ the automated equipment and robots at different stages of construction processes from earthworks through the construction of the structure (concreting, frames assembly, walling) to finishing works. Besides, the use of robots will directly or indirectly save the builder/contractor/owner to face the legal problem, and also the given tasks can be completed at a faster rate.

Benefits

The most significant benefits of automation and robotics in construction are:

  • High performance and productivity in harsh and hostile conditions such as difficult climatic conditions, exposure to dust, etc.
  • Real-time “sense-and-act” operation while performing delicate tasks such as panel positioning, plumbing, material handling, etc.
  • Solid quality with higher accuracy than that provided by skilled workers
  • Better connectivity and convergence that allows the possibility to continuously acquire and share data.
  • Efficient interaction between human operators, sensors, and end-tools using Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs).
  • Lower the level of labor force dependence and fewer problems related to quality and work repetitiveness.
  • Greater control over the productive process. Higher quality and efficiency in planning, construction, and maintenance processes.
  • Lesser workload on workers and uniform quality in the outcome when compared to skilled laborers.
  • Less use of material and cost savings due to low tolerance and better control of operations
  • Reduction of the repair works mostly arising due to human errors and ignorance.
  • Extended life and fewer expenses on maintenance of building materials and components.
  • Environmental friendliness with fewer emissions and pollution.
  • Occupational safety and reduced number of accidents and injuries, in line with the latest safety regulations.

Barriers

One of the main obstacles for robotics implementation within the construction sites is the variability of construction processes and the construction environment’s variable conditions. Unlike other industries, the process execution may vary significantly between two different construction sites. Executing the same operation in different construction sites depends on various factors that influence its possible automation.

Similarly, the difference of the materials employed in executing an identical process implies using tools adequate for each material. The processes that form a constructive activity relates to the type of material and the tools used. The process flow may vary for the same activity if one of these two elements varies.

A robot must cope with the complexity of the construction process, implying a very dynamic and naturally evolving site, together with the need for performing multiple tasks with differing characteristics. The main factors that prevent the spreading of robotic technologies in construction can be listed as follows:

  • Site-related challenges: Construction sites are not static. The sites are too dynamic and unstructured and can be too complicated for robots. The inherently unstructured nature of construction sites prevents the straightforward integration of robotic technologies already used in factories.
  • Variability of buildings typologies: All construction sites are unique and do not present the same set of problems. Every building can also be considered unique due to the many differences in its shape, materials, components used, and locations.
  • Skeptical attitude: The key stakeholders, like construction companies, clients, and regulatory bodies, have a strong tendency to stick to well-consolidated practices rather than to innovate and adopt novel technologies.
  • Complexity of the supply chain: The different stakeholders and the fragmentation of the supply chain entails strong inertia towards innovation due to extremely varying interests and needs.
  • Variety of the markets: Regional markets have intrinsic differences (regulations, cost of materials, cost of workforce, quality requirements for products, etc.) that imply different requirements.
  • High initial capital investment: High investments are needed to incorporate robotic technologies.

 

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