Know Your Bots: A tech refresh for building construction and technology

Photo courtesy of Hilti
Published On
Aug 13, 2021

Building technologies are applicable far beyond building automation and controls—advancements in robotics and software means they can now be used for construction.

Robotics’ rise

Robotics are widely used in construction. According to ABB, Cary, N.C., nine out of 10 construction businesses predict a skills crisis by 2030, and robotics may help fill that gap. More specifically, 81% of those that responded to ABB’s surveys said they plan to introduce robots to the construction cycle over the next 10 years.

Such construction includes modular home fabrication and building components of structures off-site, which will become part of overall building construction. Robots could be used for such jobs as welding, metal cutting, material handling and assembly at other building sites. Robots may work in conjunction with other workers and humans, or they may work with large 3D printers printing custom structures.

Automation anxiety?

Robotics’ use often prompts a discussion related to the labor shortage. If robots are used, will they take jobs away from workers?

Probably not. Robots may perform some repetitive tasks ordinarily performed by humans; however, their role should be viewed more as displacing workers rather than replacing them. While robotics help close the gap for skilled labor, it will simultaneously generate new jobs for those who will operate or otherwise interact with the robots and can be part of this new and emergent construction process.

But traditional skill sets have been hard to fill for construction firms. In ABB’s survey of 1,900 large and small construction businesses in Europe, the United States and China, about 44% say that the struggle to recruit for new construction jobs will become a problem.

Instilling safety and sustainability

Robots can be programmed to perform very precise operations that produce accurate results and help reduce waste in the building process, enhancing the sustainability of the overall construction operation.

Using robotics also makes construction safer by shifting certain tasks away from humans, such as automating certain tasks, handling large, heavy loads and working in unsafe spaces.

Robotics can also combine with software and digital technology. Hilti’s Jaibot Drilling Robot, for instance, translates virtual designs in building information modeling (BIM) to the job site. Embedding drilling site information for multiple trades into BIM can eliminate weeks of manual measurements and marking. The Jaibot, which has built-in dust-removal, drills into overhead ceilings to free up workers from this repetitive task.

Undergraduate researchers in the department of construction management technology at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., designed a robotic construction system that incorporates computer vision-sensing technology for robotics operation in and around construction settings.

These researchers foresee workforce shortages becoming problematic in the construction industry, and implementing robotics by automating certain operations would be helpful to moving construction projects along at the site where there are so many unknown factors. Using robotics in this way calls for advanced sensing and technologies that require a reasoning ability beyond what is commonly used in other applications, such as supply chain and manufacturing environments.

Specifically for the Purdue team, its design enables material to be placed and fastened in one operation using a single robotic arm, reducing the amount of equipment required to complete a task. These robots employ computer vision, which enables an algorithm allowing the system to sense building elements and match them to BIM. It helps keep track of any obstructions, safety hazards or other obstacles in the context of the system’s safety.

The overall effort by Purdue’s researchers complements that of ABB and Hilti and proves that new advancements in these technologies are becoming instrumental in building construction. Robotics and new software technologies, such as computer visioning, BIM and different algorithms used in the design process, combine to offer a new future for building technologies. Electrical contractors should stay apprised of such developments. ECs are sure to encounter them soon, because this technology can be used in buildings from design through all the phases of construction.

About the Author

Jim Romeo

Freelance Writer

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Va. He focuses on business and technology topics. Find him at www.JimRomeo.net.

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