In this episode of the AEC Business podcast, host Aarni Heiskanen interviews Dr. Thomas Bock, a renowned expert in construction robotics. With 45 years of experience in the field and multiple books on the topic, Thomas shares his insights and expertise. Tune in to learn more about his professional journey and the advancements in construction robotics.
An unconventional professional journey
Thomas’s journey in construction robotics began when he built his own house as a student. The labor-intensive process led him to explore the potential of robotics in construction. He studied civil engineering and architecture simultaneously, gaining a multidisciplinary understanding of the field. His interest in robotics grew when he saw the first welding robot at a Daimler-Benz factory in Stuttgart. This encounter sparked his curiosity and led him to question why robots couldn’t be used for assembling walls and buildings.
The Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago was one of Thomas’s destinations during his journey. There he studied under professors who had worked on iconic architectural projects. He also learned about Japanese companies like Toyota and Sekisui, which were producing houses using innovative methods. Intrigued by these advancements, Thomas secured a scholarship to study in Japan, where he discovered that the country was ahead of what he had known in the United States.
During his time in Japan, Thomas delved into robotics for both prefabrication and on-site construction. He combined mechanical engineering, computer science, and electrical engineering to develop new kinematics and solutions specific to the construction industry. His unconventional path also included a detour into space technology and becoming a commercial pilot. These experiences provided valuable insights into the use of technologies such as aircraft navigation and sensor systems in construction robotics.
The current state of construction robotics
When discussing the current state of art in construction robotics, Thomas acknowledges the exponential development of technology, including the rise of artificial intelligence (AI). However, he emphasizes the importance of straightforward and robust solutions in the construction industry. Especially in on-site robotics, the harsh environment and unpredictable factors make it necessary to prioritize reliability over complexity.
The integration of construction robotics and digital technology offer numerous benefits: improved efficiency, safety, and precision in construction processes. Robots can perform tasks that were once labor-intensive and time-consuming, reducing the need for manual labor and increasing productivity. The use of robotics also minimizes human error and enhances safety on construction sites.
Furthermore, technology has enabled the use of advanced materials and techniques in construction. 3D printing, for example, allows for the creation of complex and customized building components with greater efficiency. Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have also become valuable tools in construction, providing aerial surveys, inspections, and monitoring of construction sites.
Affordable housing through prefab and automation
Thomas discusses a process-oriented approach to affordable design in the construction industry. The traditional approach involves the architect designing the product, the civil engineer calculating the structure, and the construction manager attempting to make it work on the construction site. However, this approach often leads to cost overruns, time overruns, and other problems.
A different approach would start with target costing or target financing. This means considering the affordability of the final product from the beginning of the design process. Instead of designing a product and then trying to make it affordable, Dr. Bock suggests starting with the question of what can be done with industrial processes and materials to create an affordable product.
The use of robotics and automation also contribute to the development of ecological and sustainable housing, which is often more expensive to build using traditional methods. Without automation, we can’t afford ecological construction.
Emerging robotic business models
In terms of business models, Thomas suggests the emergence of specialized companies that employ individuals skilled in operating construction robots. These companies would offer their services to construction companies, efficiently utilizing robots to complete tasks quickly and intensively. There are specialized facade companies that focus solely on assembling facades. Similarly, specialized robotics companies could be established to handle specific construction tasks, employing a well-trained workforce to efficiently use robots.
The discussion also highlights the importance of changes in education and vocational training. Universities need to adapt their curricula to incorporate the skills required for operating construction robots. Vocational training programs should also be updated to equip workers with the necessary knowledge and skills in robotics. These changes are essential to ensure that the workforce is prepared for the growing role of robotics in the construction industry.