Brent McPhail likes to use the Ford F-150 analogy.
As a lover of the truck that he also drives, the owner of Brave Control Solutions uses the vehicle to illustrate the vast differences between designing automation to build the truck and automation to build structures for the construction industry.
In the case of the truck, the auto manufacturer will send him the functional specs to build a machine.
“It’s a very refined scope,” he says.
After all, the robots and fixtures will be designed to do the same task over and over.
But with construction, projects can be entirely unique. The customer may want to build a hotel, a store, a hospital.
“If it was an F-150 we would teach those robots one time and then run that program a million times,” says McPhail. “But with construction we may only have to run this variance eight times and then another new variance is going to come in, and another one.”
What Brave Controls has done, and as a result has won the ABB Value Provider Solution Award from Sweden-based robotic company ABB Group, is come up with CAD to Path software specifically for the construction industry so that the manufacture of unique assemblies — a chassis for hotel rooms, mass timber floors, panel walls, plumbing — can be adjusted depending on the constructor’s different architectural and engineering requirements.
“My customers demand originality, uniqueness, having their own footprint,” McPhail explains. “A building and a car are not the same. That’s the fundamental challenge.”
Brave Control Solutions is made up of the first parts of McPhail’s two children’s names, Bryson and Avery. But it’s also an unabashed reference to the pride he and his team have in taking on the challenges others in the industry won’t.
“I get a lot of joy out of them, but I also think they’re very valuable,” he says.
For example, as a longtime supplier to the auto industry, Brave would take contracts and build machines for a “highly efficient industry and make it .0001 per cent more efficient.”
That creates a better product and ultimately more company and shareholder value. Now the 35-person firm is doing the same with construction, an industry that is lagging when it comes to automated assembly.
“The joke I always make is, ‘Hey, is your last innovation a nail gun?’ ” McPhail says. “Or a fourth-generation construction guy will say, ‘You know, if my great great grandfather came back today he’d fit right in.’ You’re still putting pipe together the same way. Good job guys? No, that’s a bad job.”
One of Brave’s most recent contracts has been to design a precision automated fabrication machine for Kitchener, Ont.’s Z Modular, a division of Zekelman Industries, to build the steel chassis for rooms, assembled modularly, for a new student residence at Windsor’s St. Clair College.
Typically, Brave’s engineers will start with an architectural drawing of the building sub-components in a CAD format. This drawing is then used to identify the relevant parametric data required to automatically instruct robots, fixtures or tooling, to adjust to the specific offsite construction manufacturer’s needs. In this “digital factory” the smart fixtures will move up and down or sideways to adjust to the proper dimensions. Likewise, robots are directed to perform their functions to execute the tasks required for assembly and fastening.
“So, if it’s steel, we’re assembling the tubes and welding. If it’s wood, we’re assembling the wood and nailing or gluing. If it’s windows, we’re assembling and then gluing and caulking and screwing. If plumbing, we’re soldering or compression fitting,” McPhail says. “There’s always two steps, assembly and fastening.”
McPhail sees potential for the system not just in traditional construction but increasingly with wood.
He has a Vancouver client building 12 storey apartment buildings made entirely of wood. Accordingly, the robots carry different tasks.
“We have replaced the welders with nail guns,” he says. “Those material handlers are using magnets, so we have replaced them with vacuum grippers to hold the wood.”
But isn’t automation replacing human labour?
McPhail says there are tasks more than fitting for automation.
“Many pieces in construction are big and heavy, so that by its very nature lends itself to automation, to robots instead of humans.”
For example, manufacturing a 3D volumetric chassis like at Z Modular.
“Just the time to set that up in a jig, for the fitters to fit that altogether, it takes a tremendous amount of time,” he says.
Another reason is simply because of the skills shortage.
Says McPhail, “Get humans to do what humans are best at, robots what robots are best at and you can save efficiency, increase productivity, make it safer — the opportunity for automation is unlimited.”