I was invited to Mexico city to give a speech at the Citi AEC conference on 29.11.2018. I was put in the module “Construction 4.0”, an analogy of “Industry 4.0”. This term came into use in 2011 in Hannover, Germany, as a push of computerization of manufacturing, tries to bring cloud computing, internet of things, and smart machines under one roof. In simple words, machines are smart, they can react to their environment, and can communicate with other machines. Robots, which will also be the focus of my presentation. I will take a look at the current development in the construction robotics field.
As so far, robots didn’t have their breakthrough in construction yet. The planning and construction processes are still very rigid and old fashioned. The industry is falling behind on many indicators, including digitalisation (second worst sector), productivity (not raising), pollution, and waste production. Those are serious issues, which need to be addressed now (and solved in the near future). Robots are presenting them as one of the possible solutions. Even though the construction industry has many internal reserves, the robots seem to be the push from the outside the it needs to step up.
In this essay I will take a look at the current development of robotics. At first will go through the main issues of the Construction industry, then will take a look at the main issues and potentials of robots. The following chapter will be about the taxonomy of robots with some examples from Europe. I will conclude with some predictions about the future.
1. Biggest issues in the construction industry
Construction industry is being stagnant for quite some time. It still represents 10% of world GDP, as buildings still decay and we have a constant need for new developments. But the industry is far away from its true potential, mostly because it has many structural issues, which should have been resolved in the past. There are six major issues construction industry is facing right now, and robots could help solve:
Construction is the second worst industry in the terms of digitalisation and it lays behind just agriculture. Link 1 link 2. Not to be dismissive to agriculture, but construction has fallen way behind on the potential it has.
There is a serious problem with productivity in construction – it is not significantly rising and it hasn’t been rising for a long time. In USA the productivity has even fallen. Possible reasons are the fragmentation of the industry and a very low profit margin. On one side there are big companies with very little incentive to improve work processes, and on the other side are small companies with no resources to innovate.
C. Rising construction costs
This point is the consequence of previous two points. The construction costs are steadily rising. Added is the labor shortage (especially in Europe, Japan), security measures, rising complexity of buildings, materials cost, and similar.
D. Pollution, waste
Maybe this is the most harmful point in this list. On average Construction industry presents around 10% of global GDP, but accounts for 25% of waste production, 23% of air pollution and 40% of energy usage (link). Those are scary numbers and just indicate that industry should get in a much better shape and start taking these issues much more seriously.
E. Ageing workforce
Latin America probably has no problems with the workforce yet, but could face them in the near future. Europe, USA and especially Japan must already deal with a lack of skilled labor. We need to prepare for a future with the lack of skilled workers, and rthe ageing workforce. It is understandable, as work on the construction site is hard and dangerous. Not many people want to work there.
F. Data complexity
The transformation from 2D planning into 3D planning (BIM) created an increase of data created of at least 100x. Planners (Architects, Engineers) need to manage more and more data, which could present a future danger, as data are getting harder to manage. The biggest problem of the data is the complexity in combination with accuracy. Plans for robots must be very exact, what is not always possible. I think data managers will be the top jobs in the near future.
2. Comparing today’s construction sites with future construction sites
On the picture below you can see a typical construction site of today. It is a dirty, crowded place, with materials and debris laying everywhere. There is a lot of manual labor, people are in constant danger of injuries. A man in the bottom of the picture is holding an archaic printed plan. Many contractors prefer blueprints on papers to BIM or digital models. These places are very hard to keep organised and running.
Compare it now with the picture below. If the robots deliver what they are promising, then the construction sites could very soon look like the one on this picture. You can immediately see that the site is less messy and crowded. There are drones in the air, monitoring the construction site. A 3D printer is printing a wall. There is a bricklaying machine building an internal wall. Some other machines are performing different tasks. A worker in the background uses an exoskeleton to lift heavy objects. And in the front, the lead worker uses a computer instead of paper blueprints.
3. Biggest issues in robotics
Now we have seen some places where these robots could be used and roughly how they could look like. But they are not on construction sites yet. There are many reasons behind it, mostly linked to the novelty they are. I will present the four general issues robots face:
A. Eyes issue
I like to call it the eyes issue, because it is a catchy name. Right now we are in a transition from Pre-programmed to See-and-Act robots. Pre-programmed robots are not suitable for construction sites, because they need very predictable environments, performing repetitive tasks. Construction sites are nothing like that, they are messy, always changing places, with debris, dust and imperfections. These are serious obstacles for See-and-Act robots, as don’t know yet how to avoid these obstacles. In other words, robots cannot see well. I mean, they can see very well, but they have many difficulties with understanding what they are seeing.
B. Novelty issue
Robots work in different ways than humans. Their way of working is not always compatible with how humans work. They adapt to change very badly, and need longer preparation time. We don’t know yet how to integrate them correctly into the construction process.
C. Price issue
Robots are expensive. For orientation, a 3D printer costs around 500.000 $ and it should come with skilled operators. For now, robots are not yet financially feasible.
D. Aesthetics issue
Speaking of 3D printers, their prints are not yet on the level of classical scaffolding techniques. It lays upon the fact that different producers are still looking for the right concrete mixture and printing methods. There is development, but it will take some more time.
4. Potentials of robots
On the other hand, robots have huge potentials. They could address some of the As i was talking before about the issues of the AEC industry, robots could be the push we so desperately need. There are four way in which they could benefit us:
Robots could be the push in productivity we so desperately need. They can work on a bigger scale than humans, with a better pace, and with more stamina. Day and night, if necessary, slow but steady.
If the development goes right, robots can be more precise than humans. With the right data input they will not be making rookie mistakes. For example, Lidar sensors can deliver ± 1 cm precision, which is enough for most of exterior and heavy works. Different laser sensors can be even more precise, up to ±1 mm, which is enough for tiles laying and other precise work.
C. Materials, Noise, Dust reduction
3D printers immediately save 30% of materials, because they don’t produce any residual waste. With the optimizations in design, this number can be even improved. Robots can also be more silent and produce less dust.
D. Helping ageing Workforce
Robots can mean an improvement on two points: they can ease the burden of the most heavy and dangerous work, for example with exoskeletons. Robots can also completely replace the most dangerous tasks.
5. Types of robots
I divide robots in three groups: 3D printers, Drones, and Construction robots.
A. 3D printers
I think it is fair to say, that in 2018 was the year of 3D concrete printers. At least in the news. The pace of the development is staggering, but I think the machines still need some optimization before being 100% industry ready. There are four key elements to each 3D printer: nozzle, arm, legs and the tank. Different companies are trying different approaches to each of those parts. We do not have yet the best practices, or optimized designs. The key functionality they are trying to achieve, is to mix the concrete in a special container, bring it to the nozzle, and as soon as the concrete leaves te nozzle, it hardens. This is very hard to achieve and companies are experimenting with chemicals, concrete mixtures, nozzle forms, and so on. Some of the companies have robots which can move. This will be an advantage for them in the future.
First company I would like to talk about is CyBe from Netherlands. They have robots on tracks, which can print on site. On the picture above is their 3D printed house, built for Design Week Milan 2018. It is not yet clear where do 3D printers perform the best. We do not know what their niche is. I think they will be much more useful at printing other elements, not houses. Currently are houses very complex, with a lot of wiring, pipes, insulation. Lets not forget about statical stability. I think 3D printers could be much better used for printing sewer pits or similar infrastructure projects. Those are heavy and ungrateful works, which have to be done precisely. Robots could be also printing molds, or even scaffolding for housings. At least in the short term.
The second company is XtreeE from France. They are focusing on architecture and do beautiful off site elements, such as parapets or pillars. They understand the needs of architects and focus on quality of prints. They have also printed this coral reef. They are researching what their niche could be.
The third company is Wasp from Italy. They are important for two reasons: their nozzle is mounted on an arm, which could be easily be a construction crane. And they are printing clay. Their last project is branded as 1$ house (picture below), as they used the surrounding soil to create the building. Using soil, or clay in 3D printing is a big innovation, because we could be all kinds of structures, which need to be big, cheap and are boring. Imagine printing high water protection dams, Terraces against soil erosion, Water retention systems, and similar climate change mitigation projects.
To finish, let me just mention that MX3D, the first company to 3D print a steel bridge. 3D steel printing is possible and it could mean a big step forward in the future.
B. Aerial robots
Drones do not have the eyes issue. They can see and orientate themselves very well. Their job has extended beyond just taking pictures and nowadays they can do much more. They can perform tasks in photogrammetry, surveying, laser scanning, and also real-time measuring. Drones can, for example, calculate volumes of soil which have been extracted at a road construction site. You can use them for as-build inquiries, and much more.
They can, for example, build. At the ICD in Stuttgart, they created a drone, which is building a simple sun-protecting roof. This project is interesting, because a drone is capable of finding the construction blocks and mounting them on the right place. The idea was to create a sun-shading roof, which could change its shape during the day, according to the sun position.
The next project is from ETH Zürich, where they taught three drones to build a fully functional bridge. The construction is primitive, but nevertheless groundbreaking. Now we do not have just one drone, but a swarm. They have to coordinate their movements in the right way to build the bridge. They have to cooperate to make then knots, and to fix the ropes. And the bridge is walkable.
C. Construction robots
I grouped together all robots, which are doing any type of construction, either bricks or timber. On the picture you can see two demolition robots, still as prototype.
Fastbrick robotics is an Australian startup with strong ties with European brick producers. They are very serious about automated bricklaying, so I would keep an eye on them. Their latest robot is Hadrian X, which is a mobile bricklaying machine. Robots are 5 times faster than humans! There are also some american startups, too.
ROB is a Swiss company. They primarily develop software for robots in many branches, with focus on construction. They are focusing just on solving the eyes problem. They develop software for different manufacturers, mostly in the timber industry. A lot of their projects are experimental (bricklaying robots, robotic tiling), but some are very industrial. They are working a lot with Swiss timber construction and timber processing factories. They did some amazing roofs.
6. Robots in architecture
Probably the most important international organisation about robotics is Rob|Arch. It was funded in 2010 and unites research institutes, universities and private companies in the field of construction robotics. A good resource of knowledge, with their biennial events around the globe.
7. The future
As conclusion, let’s take a look at how could construction sites look like in the distant future. If the robot companies manage to deliver what are they currently promising, the market will turn to them and the race for maximum efficiency will start. A the end, I think, we will get a set of universal robots, which could perform a multitude of tasks. I could also see closed system, in the style of the current software development (Apple), with one producer, one material, one working process.
Universal robots will bring big savings in time, money and materials. Construction will get cheaper, and as construction gets cheaper, there will be more construction projects going on. This way also the cities and the built environment will be changing on a much faster pace. If there is a new need, cities can respond much faster than before. They can build up or tear down buildings, roads, infrastructure, in weeks time. This way our built environment will look much more like a living organism, removing dead stock, unused buildings, and placing what it needs on their space.
As conclusion, please take these key messages from my essay. Adoption of robotics will most probably be slow, because the AEC industry has to first solve its internal structural problems. Also robots need to be more industry-ready. Just in the 3D printing field there are 65 startups, which got 1 billion $ investment in 2018. There are some very interesting projects, like a robotic scaffolding company from in Münich making robotized scaffoldings, which will be financed by advertising.
Robots promise savings in 20% up to 70% range, which is a lot. There is a lot of potential and we are still looking for niches, where robots could perform better than current construction techniques. I would bet on prefabrication and infrastructure.
On the long run, with aging workforce, robots are inevitable.