It’s a general contractor’s dream and a union nightmare: robots and automated machinery taking over jobs on construction sites.
The same digital disruption that has shaken up the taxi industry around the world with the arrival of Uber and savaged the recording industry with online downloading is slowly but surely making inroads into the construction industry.
For example, Dutch company Vanku has developed the Tiger-Stone, an automated paving machine that lays up to 300-square metres of bricks a day. The paving bricks are simply randomly dumped into the hopper and the machine lays them down in a continuous stream in a herringbone pattern.
In North America the poster child for robotics in construction is the SAM100, a bricklaying robot that takes over from human hands to slap down bricks.
However, while it does the repetitive tasks of buttering and laying bricks and the strenuous task of lifting and placing each brick, it needs a mason to guide it and set it up. So it won't be replacing masons completely anytime soon but the times are changing. Scott Peters, president and co-founder of Construction Robotics the Rochester, NY.-based maker of the SAM100 says it's still early days yet for the technology.
"It's been quite an evolution over the last year or year and a half," he says. "Back then we were just getting to sites, running SAM ourselves as the customers watched. Now we have three machines going out in rentals, we've got a mid-west distributor and there are two other machines in production."
He says customers have been taking the three-day course to learn about the machine and getting more ambitious in the jobs they rent SAM for. Software tweaks have also increased the machine's speed and capacity by 50 per cent, he says.
"We've done small jobs, a couple of thousand bricks but it's mostly because customers want to see it work and they weren't confident," he says. "We're finding now it really makes more sense for 10,000, 20,000 brick jobs on commercial projects because it's so much faster. Maybe not for a 20 foot wall but if you have a straight run of 60, 70 per 100 feet it makes a lot of sense."
In the short term he says the company is looking at software tweaks to improve speed and capability.
"Right now it can't do returns or work tight on a window lintel but we're looking at improving the software so we can get there and do things like lay soldier bricks."
Still, it's an example of technology creeping into construction, an industry often slow to change from traditional ways of doing things, says University of Waterloo Professor Carl Haas, Canada Research construction and management of sustainable infrastructure chair and interim chair at the department of civil and environmental engineering.
What we're missing, says Haas, are all the other ways automation, another type of robotics, has already established itself and that's where the real growth areas will be.
"You've got stakeless earth moving machinery, guided by GPS and lasers," he says. "Even 'dozers where the tip angle of the blade and pitch and yaw are automatically controlled."
While autonomous vehicles are just starting to appear on the roads, construction, especially mining, already seen those vehicles in action.
Large mining haulers, for example, have been deployed for a couple of years to bring rocks from the extraction point for crushing. Because they operate in a controlled space on the mine property, it's much easier to use them without liability issues from other traffic.
The education from the technology is feeding on itself. What's being learned by Tesla in consumer vehicle automation is making its way into commercial automation — and vice versa, says Prof. Haas.
"Also as machine 3D imaging develops I think it's going to have a huge impact," says Haas, a director of the International Association for Automation and Robotics in Construction.
The capacity for machines to "see" in 3D, referencing both the "real time" image at a site and the design drawings on file, will open more doors for artificial intelligence on the site.
Crane operators, for example, wouldn't be sitting high in their cabs. They could be at ground level with a console — much like a gaming console — guiding the crane with an auto-pilot function taking over at appropriate moments.
For that matter, they may not even have to be on site; mining technology has long allowed operators to control machines underground from offices hundreds of miles away. It wouldn't be a huge leap to see crane controls go the same way.
"The cost of 3D imaging has come down dramatically in the last few years," Prof. Haas says, making it more affordable while at the same time the technology is getting more accurate and more responsive.
From automated creation of precast concrete parts to sintering of metal connectors, that technology is also becoming more commonplace. There have also been demonstrations of 3D printing using the technology to "print" a structure, laying down cement according to a plan which has inputs for the X,Y and Z axes, with a nozzle and pumping out a toothpaste like consistency in layers to be hand finished.