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Inside Innovation: The promise and challenge of robotics and co-botics in construction

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: The promise and challenge of robotics and co-botics in construction

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the construction industry with an opportunity to re-examine itself in the hopes of addressing its lagging productivity gains over past decades. Modularization and off-site construction under controlled conditions is gaining increased attention.

Automation is also gaining acceptance in the form of various programmable robotic machines and devices that increase site efficiency. One area of such advancement has given birth to the term “co-botics,” exoskeleton devices worn or attached to individual workers that allow them to maintain continuous levels of work while reducing fatigue.

Should the rise of automation and robotics in construction be seen as a threat to contractors and workers? Not according to international consultancy McKinsey & Company.

“The reality is much more nuanced,” write Michael Chui and Jan Mischke, McKinsey Global partners in San Francisco and Zurich respectively.

In fact, they are optimistic about future employment prospects.

“In construction, automation is less likely to diminish employment opportunities than it is to increase productivity. We expect the overall number of jobs in construction to grow rather than shrink, with up to 200 million additional jobs by 2030 if countries fill global infrastructure gaps and boost affordable housing supply.”

In their December 2019 report titled, The impact and opportunities of automation in construction, Chui and Mischke cite construction’s unique processes as a reason why robots will not entirely replace humans.

“The easiest tasks to automate are repetitive, physical activities in predictable environments — but construction’s environment is usually unpredictable,” they write. “The unpredictability is twofold: not only do pieces move around but each construction site and project is tailored to specific customer demands, architectural designs and geographical and site requirements.”

While robots that can lay bricks and pave roads are already in use, intriguing new devices are under development that will make work easier for those onsite.

For example, Clearpath Robotics of Kitchener, Ont. has introduced the Husky A200, a mobile robot designed to navigate difficult terrain for mapping and geological work. Its open platform allows physical modifications and software integration with BIM, making it capable of carrying materials while navigating the jobsite. The A200 is also able to listen to and fulfill commands given by a human.

General Electric has been granted funding to develop an autonomous “Tunnelling Earthworm” for military purposes that might later evolve into private sector use.

In a media release, the company says the “bio-inspired soft robot design mimics the rhythmic movements of earthworms moving through soil and the force of tree roots growing into the ground to create underground tunnel.”

Its muscle-and skeleton-like structure squeezes into tight spaces, moving earth backwards while going forward.

Nearer at hand are co-botic devices that allow trades to work at full efficiency longer with reduced fatigue.

Full or near-full exoskeletal devices that can be worn by workers engaged in heavy lifting tasks have been demonstrated for several years. Full robots that can, for example, carry drywall are always a hit at trade shows. However, this level of sophistication is currently price-prohibitive for most worksite applications.

Examples of less expensive solutions to fatigue reduction include ergo-skeletal devices like the ExoPush, an exoskeleton rake attachment to assist workers while spreading asphalt, and the Ironhand, a bionic glove that amplifies the worker’s grip force, thereby reducing tendonitis.

Automation is likely to increase productivity and see wages rise for workers with advanced skills over the long term.

However, McKinsey’s Chui and Mischke write that during a transition period that could last a decade or longer, those more exposed to predictable, repetitive tasks will be in less demand, resulting in a slowdown in their wage growth.

“Even if robots do the physical work of laying bricks, workers will still need to drive and manoeuvre heavy equipment. But they will need to pair this work with more technological skills.”

The employment challenge presented by automation and robotics will place an increased emphasis on worker education, training and new skill sets.

 

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com.

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