Will On-Site Robotics Become Feasible in Construction?

Over the last few years we’ve seen concepts and pilot projects for construction site robotics. Peter Novikov, Enrico Dini, Wolf D. Prix, and others have shown what on-site robotics can already accomplish. There are still hurdles to overcome, but the convergence of several technologies is making the automated construction site look attainable.

Professor Thomas Bock, AEC Hackathon Munich, April 1,  2017

Construction robotics is not a fad. In his keynote at AEC Hackathon Munich in April 2017, Professor Thomas Bock showed examples of construction robotics beginning in the early 1970s. The first construction robots were designed in Japan for manufacturing prefabricated modular homes. Already in the late 1970s, plans were made for extensive use of on-site construction robots.

Labor shortage is imminent

“The problem with architecture and construction,” says Petr Novikov, “is that we design digitally and then construct manually, and a lot of inefficiencies happen between them.” (4 Ways a Robot or Drone 3D Printer Will Change Architecture and Construction). The other big reason for the increased interest in construction robotics is the shortage of skilled labor. The Japan Federation of Construction Contractors, for example, has estimated that there will be 1.28 million fewer construction workers by fiscal 2025 compared with fiscal 2014.

Robotics as a productivity solution

There are two basic ways to use robots in construction: in a factory or at the construction site. Many pundits say that the only feasible way to increase construction productivity is to prefabricate as much as possible. Another strategy, though much harder to implement, is to automate on-site construction as much as possible.

Some companies, like the Danish firm Odico, are using a hybrid solution. Odico used robotic hot-wire cutting to create formworks from digital models. The forms are produced in a manufacturing facility and used on-site for concrete casting.

The challenges of on-site robotics

Robots are effective and manageable in controlled manufacturing environments, but a typical construction site is far from that. On-site robotics must deal with an environment that changes day by day or even faster. As Professor Bock stated, traditional industrial robots are still valid in prefabrication, but for the construction site, a robot must be designed differently.

The ideas and principles of Industry 4.0’s smart factories can be applied to construction, but the on-site world is still too chaotic for fully autonomous solutions.

What follows are a few recent examples of companies and projects that are testing or have developed on-site robotics. They’ve faced many challenges, e.g.:

  • Designing robots that can be moved or assembled easily
  • Creating safe environments for robots and humans to collaborate and interact
  • Providing the necessary construction materials for the robot
  • Designing software that allows easy configuration of a robot’s movements and self-learning
  • Use of machine vision or sensors in changing conditions inside buildings or on the grounds
  • Managing the behavior of building materials during the construction process

Many developers have shown that robots and 3D printing go hand in hand. In fact, the benefits of digital fabrication are realized when many technologies converge. Robots, CNC, 3D printing, drones, IoT, cloud computing, new materials, and artificial intelligence are all part of the solution.

SAM100 by Construction Robotics

SAM100 (Semi-Automated Mason) is a brick-laying robot designed and engineered by Construction Robotics. According to its manufacturer, SAM100 is the first commercially available brick-laying robot for onsite masonry construction.

The robot is designed to work collaboratively with the mason, providing over a 50 percent reduction in labor costs. SAM100 increases a mason’s productivity by 3-5 times while reducing lifting by 80 percent or more. The robot is available to rent, lease, or buy. The system creates daily performance reports that provide insight into productivity and job issues.

Komatsu’s Automated Construction Fleets

Komatsu, the world’s second-largest construction equipment manufacturer, is developing a service that combines Intelligent Machine Control (iMC) with Skycatch drones and 3D laser scanners. Terrain and soil data collected by the drones is processed in the cloud and used to control autonomous dozers and excavators. Human operators are present on the automated jobsites only to take control of a machine if necessary.

On Site Robotics

On Site Robotics is a collaborative project of two Spanish organizations, IAAC and TECNALIA. The project demonstrates the potential of additive manufacturing technology and robotics in creating sustainable, low-cost buildings.

The large-scale 3D printing system includes Cogiro, a cable-operated robot, with an integrated CNC control. The system also integrates an extruder and a natural, biodegradable, recyclable, and local clay-based extrusion material. In addition, a custom script integrated into the CAD software allows easy translation of complex 3D designs to robotic trajectories.

An interesting addition to On Site Robotics is the use of autonomous drones. They monitor the structures, e.g., providing information on the drying progress of the structures.

Experimental Projects

Several experimental projects have shown that robotic construction can create forms and use materials that are not feasible for use in traditional construction. A recent robotically woven carbon-fiber pavilion serves as an example. It was developed by a team from the University of Stuttgart, led by Professor Achim Menges. The structure was erected in the courtyard of London’s V&A Museum as part of a season of engineering events.

The Elytra Filament Pavilion comprises 40 unique hexagonal components that were robotically fabricated from a combination of transparent glass fibre and black carbon fibre. An on-site robot contained within a transparent membrane produced new elements of the pavilion throughout the show that ran until November 6, 2016.