Robots could soon take over the most backbreaking and monotonous of construction tasks - leaving plenty of other work for humans.
Robots can be programmed to lift heavy loads and perform monotonous tasks like laying course after course of bricks, unloading materials or moving equipment from place to place. While robotic technology hasn’t exactly taken over the jobsite, it’s making inroads in several areas. One day it could dramatically decrease the cost of construction — though humans will still be needed at every step.
Robotic arms for 3D printers
3D printing is slowly finding its way into construction applications, but the items these printers can churn out is usually limited by the size of the machine. As far as 3D-printed houses go, the 30-foot-tall by 20-foot-wide BigDelta by WASP (World's Advance Saving Project) was one of the few options for printing a large structure. That’s changing.
Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a digital construction platform on tire treads that can produce much larger structures than stationary printers. The platform, equipped with an arm for long-range reach, can build structures larger than itself and even help prepare a site for building. Thanks to an additional, smaller arm, it can also perform detailed tasks such as welding or applying spray foam.
The SAM100 (Semi-Automated Mason) brick-laying robot can lay 3,000 bricks per day, which is six times the number an average worker can install. Armed with a concrete pump, a conveyor belt and a robotic arm, the unit picks up bricks, applies mortar and then places the brick in the appropriate place.
The technology won't eliminate the need for human workers anytime soon, though, because the system requires a mason to smooth mortar before the next brick can be laid.
Researchers at the Imperial College, University College London and the University of Bath are working on turning drones into 3D-printing robots that can build housing and other post-disaster structures in areas made inaccessible by floods, landslides or other hazardous conditions. Researchers are using swarm intelligence to facilitate robot-to-robot communications and operations. A workable model is expected to take years to come to market.
Robotic material production and fabrication
The In Situ Fabricator 1, developed by ETH Zurich in Switzerland, is an autonomous construction robot that employs cameras and processors to plan and perform tasks such as bricklaying. It can also weld together complex wire forms that can be used in a number of applications.
Robotics company FANUC is exploring materials-based applications with a robot that can cut materials like foam board insulation into custom sizes and then stack, pack and palletize the order. FANUC and other robotics companies, including Yaskawa, Kuka and ABB, already make a line of palletizing robots.
Construction robots can also help with other tasks. FANUC’s ARC Mate robots can be used to speed up arc welding, and Tecauma’s robotic assembly machines can assist with door and window assembly.
Demolition can be one of the most dangerous stages of a construction project because of deteriorating structural conditions and potential exposure to toxic materials like asbestos. Researchers at Sweden’s Umea Institute of Design have developed a prototype of a demolition system that can "grab, cut and smash" even a concrete structure using interchangeable robotic arms.
Robotic construction of prefab elements
Homebuilding has been particularly affected by the labor shortage, which has driven up costs and lengthened the construction process. Offsite construction, or prefabrication, is starting to ease the strain, and Blueprint Robotics is making the construction of prefab elements faster and more efficient.
The company prefabricates wood wall, floor and roof panels for final assembly on site using precision robots that can pre-drill, fasten, trim and route at increased speeds. Once the building components are ready, they're shrink-wrapped and delivered to the site. In many cases, a house is 60 percent complete when the modules arrive.