The future of robotics in the construction industry

Forty years ago, robots were viewed as the solution to labour shortages in construction, but the diffusion of such technology has been much lower than anticipated [IFRSR17]. Unlike the manufacturing sector (see Chapter 5), construction sites are unstructured, cluttered, variable and congested, making them difficult environments for robots to operate in. The advent of new technologies allowing customisation, rapid take-up of additive manufacturing processes, networked manufacturing equipment and increasing data integration, means that construction robotics is getting closer to being adopted [IFRSR17]. Processes that can be automated in building construction include materials handling, materials shaping (cutting, breaking, compacting, brick laying, machining), structural joining (assembly), and concreting [IFRSR17]. Robotics is also increasingly seen as an enabler for architectural design, allowing custom, one of a kind, sometimes additive built-up, complex structures [IFRSR17].

The automation of heavy machinery has the potential to improve the safety and efficiency of construction operations, which involve complex tasks in a range of unstructured environments. Typical robot technologies, such as motion control, navigation and computer vison, are increasingly integrated in previously manned platforms (e.g., cranes). Advances in technology will see robotics tackling increasingly complex physical and cognitive tasks. There will also be a strong industry need for regulation technology (RegTech), robotic and vision systems that can be deployed to monitor and enforce worker safety, and identify and ameliorate potential hazards. Some examples of the types of robots that might be seen on future construction sites include:

  • the GO-FOR robot – that you can direct to get tools/supplies
  • autonomous spotter – helps monitor safety autonomously
  • health monitoring – never work alone: a robotic buddy
  • bricklaying and timber or steel truss building robots, painting robots.

Construction is predominantly an operational excellence business. It is a broad gambit of relatively smaller tasks, designed, planned and sequenced to culminate into a built outcome. This heavily intertwined set of tasks span technical, business, and workers. As such, any conception of the need must be sympathetic to this. A purely technological solution has considerable barriers to adoption if it does not fit into business flow and process. Uptake is also unlikely if workers are jarred, threatened, or perhaps simply don’t comprehend the offering.