While prefabrication and building information modelling occupy a large part of the limelight when it comes to innovation in building and construction throughout Australia, one area which is less discussed is that of robotics and especially robots which can move about and operate in an uncontrolled environment on site.
Traditionally limited to controlled environments, a new generation of robots are coming into commercial use which can move, learn and interact with people and other machines and have dexterity and flexibility.
In the hospitality sector, robotic staff at Tokyo’s new Hen-na Hotel man the front desk, carry luggage, clean rooms and pour coffee. In construction, a commercial version of Perth-based Fastbrick Robotics’ Hadrian robot, which can lay up to 1,000 bricks per hour and construct the entire frame of a detached house within two days, is expected in around twelve months.
More is on the way. In the UK, the University of Leeds is pioneering a £4.2 billion project to create robots and drones that perch like birds and repair street lights, autonomously inspect, diagnose, repair and prevent potholes in roads, and live in utility pipes while performing inspection, repair, metering and reporting tasks.
Exoskeletons which people fit into, meanwhile, are being targeted to reduce injuries and help take weight off when lifting or holding heavy objects. Climbing robots that can 3D print entire buildings are being experimented with.
Martin Loosemore FCIOB, FRICS, a professor of Construction Project Management at the University of New South Wales, says the future will see operator controlled robots working on site alongside people and other robots.
“You can imagine a construction site in the future and you will have self-driving machinery with machines and people working together on site,” Loosemore said. “You’ve got a small group of specialists overseeing hundreds of robots who are interacting naturally with the rest of the robot workforce and producing the building in a much more precise, cost effective and speedy way.”
Fastbrick CEO Mike Pavic says modern construction problems, such as the fact that up to 15 per cent of bricks are discarded and heavy lifting is being done manually will change going forward. He believes robots are likely to be used in applications where they deliver on speed, accuracy, waste reduction and safety.
“When you look at the way things are happening, it’s hard to conceive that 20 or 30 years from now we will still see men carrying bricks to a bricklayer, shovelling sand cement into a mixer and then pouring it into a wheelbarrow and wheeling it over planks and drums,” Pavic said.
“When you can transfer products from a safe area like a loader machine or a compacter machine with someone sitting in a safe environment in an air-conditioned cab, and that product is cut, handled, delivered and then laid without the need for any of that manual lifting, pushing of wheelbarrows or chipping of bricks, I think safety will improve outstandingly.”
Beyond the immediate impact on site, robots could increase the lifespan of built assets and reduce the cost of maintaining such assets by detecting and fixing problems immediately and conducting maintenance in an automated way. They could also help to reduce the cost of built asset construction by increasing speed and minimising labour requirements, potentially saving taxpayer dollars and improving housing affordability. By taking on many of the fabrication tasks onsite in a precise and cost effective manner, meanwhile, Loosemore thinks robots could eventually reverse the current shift toward off-site fabrication - potentially from overseas destinations - with low labour costs. This would put the focus back toward on-site fabrication back here in Australia.
None of this will happen overnight. Robots are not cheap, Loosemore says, and any form of widespread adoption will require greater awareness of practical applications for robots on building sites as well as the development of skills to operate and control them. Pavic says the idea of robots building multi-storey buildings is at least a decade away.
Finally, there is the impact upon the sector’s workforce. Use of robots will inevitably reduce the amount of human labour required to construct buildings, infrastructure and houses. While this will be hard on some, both Loosemore and Pavic stress that opportunities for workers will still exist but will evolve in nature.
What’s more, Pavic says taking the physical intensity out of tasks will help many workers to remain in the industry for longer, while the greater level of sophistication associated with robot or drone oriented tasks will help raise the profile of a sector which has not typically enjoyed particularly high levels of status, particularly in the labour-intensive roles. This, he says, will help attract young workers into the sector.
“Looking at future school leavers, it’s hard to think that there would be many who plan on a career in construction right now unless it’s in the field of design or engineering,” Pavic said. “It’s an actual fact that school leavers do not see bricklaying as an attractive career path to take.
“But when they see robotic machines now doing these types of tasks, we believe young people will see robotic construction as a good career choice in the future. We believe this is going to attract young people back into construction in a way that has sustainability about allows them to plan 30 years and say ‘this is going to be my career and it’s going to evolve and be exciting.’
“When people say ‘what do you do?’ and (school leavers) say ‘I’m an operator of a robotic construction machine,’ I think there will be a level of pride attached in saying that.”