Robotics in Construction: A Brief History of Automation in the Industry

While some may think using robotics in construction is a new development, it is actually the continuation of a larger story about automation in construction that goes back thousands of years.

The Terracotta Army, a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, utilized offsite construction and prefabrication techniques when built in 210 BCE.

The past century has had a number of attempts at industrializing construction, from the Sears Modern Home, a catalog and kit house sold by Sears, Roebuck, and Company through mail order, shipped by railroad boxcar and assembled on-site, to Lustron houses, prefabricated enameled steel houses developed in the post-World War II era United States in response to the shortage of homes for returning GIs.

The late 1970s and 80s saw a rich period of industry-driven development, particularly in Japan. Facing fears of a labor shortage due to an aging population and younger workers flocking into high-tech industries (fears still relevant today), a number of Japanese companies such as the Shimizu Corporation and the Takenaka Corporation invested in construction automation and robotics to great effect, developing robots and remotely-controlled devices used for all sorts of tasks, including material handling, excavation, concrete placement, concrete finishing, rebar placement, fireproofing, structural steel, interior and exterior finishing, earthworks, as well as integrated construction automation systems and prefabricated homes.

While many of these technologies did not end up widely adopted, they successfully adapted techniques from manufacturing into practical construction utilization. Today, improvements in robotics, software, and organization have allowed a new wave of automation in construction to rise, with new developments and collaborations happening across academia, government, and industry.

 

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Improvements in technology and software have allowed for a new wave of robotics in construction

 

Why Robotics in Construction? Why Now?

Construction is one of the highest waste industries in the world. While it is difficult to get exact figures of the waste produced on a typical construction site, some estimate that as much as 30% of the total weight of building materials delivered to a building site are wasted. According to the US Green Building Council, 30% of total waste in the United States alone comes from building construction. The European Commission estimates it at 25-30% of material waste in the EU, and global estimates are between 25-40%. Building construction consumes 40% of global energy and 40% of the world’s raw materials.

The scale of material waste alone within current construction processes is a major issue worth addressing. Further, population increases in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa and India indicate that a large percentage of near-future building projects will need to be constructed in resource-scarce areas where supply chains are nonexistent or underdeveloped. With a rapidly growing population in a world of dwindling resources, the construction industry will need to find ways to build more with less.

Additionally, the construction industry faces a number of challenges related to labor. Construction continues to lag behind other industries in labor productivity, continually ranking relatively low in labor productivity indices, which measure the time a person a worker spends on-site over how much productivity or output is achieved. While measuring labor productivity in construction is rife with difficulties and has been a matter of debate, existing US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate of labor productivity in construction suggest that construction has not only been not rising at the level of other industries, but that in some cases, productivity has even been declining for many decades. While newer measurements indicate the issue may not be as negative as previously thought, construction still lags behind other industries.

Another issue is the construction industry’s much-bemoaned shortage of skilled labor. While this reflects a dip in vocational training in the United States and indicates the need for more training and retaining, it is also an opportunity for more automation to fill the gap. Industries such as manufacturing, aerospace, and even the service sector have realized productivity gains through the automation technologies, and now such technologies are beginning to become more available for construction.

 

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With a growing population in a world of dwindling resources, the construction industry seeks ways to build more with less

 

A Confluence of Challenges and Opportunities

While the construction industry faces these challenges, it is also presented with a greater number of opportunities for automation. Robotics technologies are being developed and more widely distributed at an ever-greater pace, creating a positive feedback loop that leads to lower costs, more research, and more development. In 2018, the construction industry is in a technology-adopting period, with general robotics technologies being translated into specific use cases solving problems in construction.

It is within this context that in June 2018, Autodesk and MassRobotics (a Boston-based nonprofit innovation hub focused on needs of the robotics community) held the Robotics in Construction Summit at the Autodesk BUILD Space in Boston.

 

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In June 2018, Autodesk and MassRobotics held the Robotics in Construction Summit 

 

The event was held in order to bring together the robotics community and the construction community in the Boston area, and encourage a discussion between these two communities. Whereas construction companies need solutions to specific problems, robotics companies need to find specific use cases to apply robot technologies they develop. Working together provides a win-win for everyone involved.

We've documented the information and discussions from the summit and packaged them into a Robotics in Construction eBook.

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Robotics in Construction: Experiments in Onsite Fabrication and Prefabrication
Robotics in Construction: Experiments in Onsite Fabrication and Prefabrication

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