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A robotic transformation: Has robotics in construction reached a tipping point?

How is robotics being used in construction, what are the barriers to further adoption, and are we on the brink of a construction robotics revolution?

Steven Matz, RICS Content Specialist
22 March 2022

A growing array of robotic equipment is able to take over specialised construction tasks such as welding, drilling and brick laying. In a recent webinar, our expert panel discussed the adoption of robotics in construction and the impact their use will have on industry.

The next tipping point

We are all familiar with the term robotics. It is not new: robotics has been used in construction for almost half a century and can easily replicate existing construction tasks such as welding and brick laying. The area with the most growth potential – and the next tipping point – will be changing our processes, developing special kinematics and revising the way we build, says Prof. Dr.-Ing. Thomas Bock, Chair for Building Realisation and Robotics at Technische Universität München. “Taking an industrial robot and placing it onsite in construction just doesn't work”, says Thomas. In his book series “Construction Robotics” with Cambridge University Press, starting with “Robot-orientated design”, Thomas set outs his reverse engineering method for future ecosystemic robotic construction projects.

Government push versus private sector pull

The adoption of robotics depends on a variety of factors, including labour costs; skill levels; new vocational training; engineering, design, and management curricula; investment capability; standards; tender and bidding habits; building codes; and culture.

In Japan, robotics adoption was driven by the construction industry. As a bottom-up approach advocated by workers in the 80s, it was something that would have been unthinkable in many European countries, explains Thomas. The tradition of Karakuri, or novelty automata, may have helped familiarise the concept of robotics in a non-threating way, but it was robotics’ notable benefits that paved the way. At a time of low unemployment, robotics created a competitive edge against cheap labour from regional competitors and attracted skilled graduates, including women, to an industry that was thought of as something that was dirty, dangerous, and difficult.

Eva Magnisali is Founder of DataForm Lab. She explains that in the UK, one of the key drivers of robotics is the government initiative Transforming Construction Challenge [1].  With government investment of £170m and an industry contribution of £250m, the challenge is designed to accelerate modern construction methods and automation in the industry. Eva sees uncertainty of demand as a major barrier to adoption. She states: “Investment in automation is often a project-based decision because there is no clear pipeline of projects to secure return on investment”.

This is not just the tipping point, this is the beginning of this technology becoming mainstream.

Eva Magnisali
Founder, DataForm Lab

Skill gaps and better processes

As Eva notes, there is a perceived complexity regarding robotics, which is not actual complexity but a lack of education and industry training. However, Eva sees this changing. New generations of architects are being trained in automation in construction and industrial robotics are featuring strongly in the academic curriculum. She believes “This is not just the tipping point, this is the beginning of this technology becoming mainstream. We also need to introduce early training for general construction workers. Training has to happen in parallel with the transformation of construction, so the skills are there when the technology is in place.”

In addition to education and training, Eva states we must also think about robotics and automation from a very early design stage. In many projects robotics and automation come only at the very end. “We have to rethink the overall construction process, and the design process is very closely connected to it. We have to design for manufacturing”, she says. Digital data tools and the adoption of common standards are key. These also assist in minimising process waste in the design and construction workflow, she adds.

Safety

The ability to carry out dangerous task is a key selling point of robotics. An extreme example is the disaster robots used at the Fukushima nuclear contaminated site in Japan.

But how safe are autonomous machines working onsite alongside human workers? The rise of AI and machine learning algorithms has given robots ‘eyes and ears’ and has made the working relationship between machine and human a lot easier. This will only improve as robots get smarter and interact more, says Alvise Simondetti, Global Leader, Emergent Digital Practice, at Arup.

Achieving net zero and sustainability

Robotics is being used for the construction of the giant shallow roof for Kuwait International Airport and has made a complex, high-performance solution commercially viable. Because this project was highly automated, it continued throughout the COVID pandemic.

Carrying out complex task is something that robotics are especially good at. If we are to achieve Net Zero 2050, we have to be able to build high-performance structures using considerably less materials, Alvise explains “And to make that commercially viable, we have to use complex techniques, which is a completely different way of thinking compared to the past”.

Alvise believes that if we continue building, we are never going to achieve net zero, which he admits is counterintuitive for the construction industry. “The construction industry will instead become a reconstruction or repurposing industry”, he says. He explains: “Repurposing is a complex task and will either require large numbers of skilled retrofit workers, of which there is a shortage of, or alternatively low skilled workers supplemented by robotics”.

A project Arup is currently working on involves looking at the use of robotics for dry stone walling, a highly skilled activity, to build natural flood defences. There are also environmental gains to be made using robotics to achieve leaner construction. This includes reducing demolition construction waste by disassembling and reusing materials, says Thomas, and the elimination of waste during construction through a right first-time approach, adds Eva.

[1] https://www.ukri.org/what-we-offer/our-main-funds/industrial-strategy-challenge-fund/clean-growth/transforming-construction-challenge/the-story-of-transforming-construction/

Repurposing is a complex task and will either require large numbers of skilled retrofit workers, of which there is a shortage of, or alternatively low skilled workers supplemented by robotics.

Alvise Simondetti
Global Leader, Emergent Digital Practice, at Arup

A robotic transformation: Have robotics in construction reached a tipping point?

In this webinar the panel discuss if the growing array of robotic equipment is able to take over specialised construction tasks, such as welding, drilling and brick laying. How are robotics being used in construction currently and what does the future hold? Has COVID-19 and skill shortages in the industry lead to an increased need for robotics and if so, for what tasks?