Why robotics in construction is inevitable and should not be feared
Mr. Smith from The Matrix may be right: “It is inevitable, Mr. Anderson…” the machines are about to take over the construction. But fear not, because with it comes a wave of exciting new roles for humans to fill in ‘design & construction robotics’
Building construction is an expensive ordeal and the cost keeps going up. Biggest cost in construction is human labor typically two thirds of the construction cost. Major construction companies such as Turner are posting non-residential construction cost increases of close to 5% per year see article while raw material prices remain constant, or even go down. The continued cost increase of labor is contributing to a number of things like:
Lack of availability of skilled laborers
Reliability of sub-contractors
Legal & contractual liabilities
Costs of construction errors
Lack of consistency
Increased demand for efficiency
Conveyance of design intent
Lack of proper construction sequencing
Lack of coordination between disciplines
The cost cannot go up infinitely and there will be a point where it will become more cost effective to program a robot to complete construction tasks. Many of those contributors can be solved and costs reduced by programming a labor force of machines to assemble a planned design. Many of programmable construction technologies are already available but are not utilized in the mainstream construction practice; tools like 3D printing, laser cutting, welding and Computer-Numeric-Control (CNC) machines just need to be taken to the next level on the construction site.
Construction material hauling and delivery will be the first aspect of construction to be taken over by machines, since self-driving cars are due to arrive by 2020 see predictions, followed by repetitive tasks like brick-laying, and precision tasks such as welding and caulking. 3D printing structure systems may follow closely due to the complexity and in-field precision requirements of building structures. Early examples of this are emerging from companies like MX3D, who are working on printing a fully functional 3D printed bridge in Amsterdam. Programmable construction machines will eventually be developed and refined to be operable on a construction site allowing for some of the following benefits:
Reducing waste by precision fabrication on site
Reducing transportation costs by ability to fabricate members on site
Exact design intent conveyed
Simulating construction outcome
Precise construction sequencing
Robots cannot sue
Reduction of construction errors
Can perform dangerous tasks and in high hazard areas
Machines are stronger, faster and can be worked longer
New jobs in maintenance/ construction robotics/ inspections
All of these things can be sequenced, programmed, simulated and performed ahead of time resulting in less costly and efficient construction. Of course there will be potential challenges:
Loss of construction jobs for people
Proper planning and sequencing challenges
Programming ability of designers
Monitoring of work
Potential for being hacked
Working out computation bugs
Potential for construction robots to take over the world
The change is presumably hindered by building regulations, the government lag on technology, construction lobbies and union groups, thus the robotic laborers most likely will first be seen outside of our planet; much like technologies developed by NASA for use in space prior to implementation back on earth. The belief is that the change will come from innovation leaders such as Elon Musk and SpaceX; specifically their recently announced plan to build colonies on Mars. Transition back on Earth will be gradual and will take place where implementation of automation will be more cost efficient than the traditional.
There is a fear of fully-automated robots taking all of our construction jobs as noted in numerous articles like this one which has vastly contributed to imagined fear derived from Hollywood movies. In reality, a complete elimination of construction jobs will not happen! The reasoning is that architecture and construction will always require a measured effort of cognitive thinking, imagination, problem solving, ethics etc. that artificial intelligence cannot accomplish; thus people will always be involved in the construction processes. The difference will be in a need for a greater involvement in areas such as planning, designing, programming path-finding, sequencing, simulating and monitoring construction process; all the while having machines perform physical tasks.
With this there will certainly be a change in the design and development of the architectural documents. Architects will be required to design buildings somewhat differently and develop ‘construction drawings simulation models’ using robotic path-finding, scripting and programming; adding another hat to an already full closet. The prediction is that with the good old paper drafting professionals exiting the profession the more computer, programming and BIM savvy professionals will be able to take the throne for a smooth transition (Education there lags behind but a solution for that comes in another article).
The change to robotics and automation is inevitable. Let us embrace it instead of fearing it because this change creates truly exciting opportunity for the industry to bring in new jobs and a whole new field of ‘design & construction robotics’ to this world.
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