Are bricklaying robots the future of construction?

The construction industry of today is faced with many challenges including a lack of workers and a backlog of projects. Can technology seek to resolve these?
2 April 2018

Technology could address many of the pain-points in the construction industry. Source: Shutterstock

Construction is a big business and is worth an estimated US$10 trillion. But, the construction space is also enmeshed with the problems of waste, severe worker shortages, and weak productivity.

With construction being one of the least-digitized industries of today, could the adoption of technology be the answer to the industry’s pain points?

One startup that is turning this vision into a reality is Built Robotics, run by former Google engineer Noah Ready-Campbell. The startup is working on technology that will enable bulldozers, excavators, and other construction vehicles to operate themselves.

The idea behind the construction-tech startup is to make the construction industry safer, faster, and cheaper through the use of automation technology.

The San Franciso-based startup is just one example of such startup who have aims of transforming the construction industry through technological innovation.

With increasing developments in robotics and machinery, many construction companies are beginning to warm to the idea of utilizing technology.

Lack of workers

A lack of workers seems to be a real problem in the construction industry today. As of February 2017, close to 200,000 construction jobs were left unfilled across the US according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With a lack of humans prepared to do the dirty work, a backlog of building projects, and a robot-force ready to get to work, the industry’s technology gap may not last for much longer.

“We need all of the robots we can get, plus all of the workers working, in order to have economic growth,” said Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute in San Francisco, as reported by ABC News. “As machines do some of the work that people used to do, the people have to migrate and transition to other forms of work, which means lots of retraining.”

Increased productivity

Machines are being developed to automate many jobs within construction sites in order to increase efficiency and productivity.

New York-based startup, Construction Robotics, has developed a bricklaying robot known as SAM (Semi-Automated Mason) which is already being used on job sites across the US. The machine can lay around 3000 bricks in an eight-hour shift- a considerable amount more than a human mason.

According to the company’s president Todd Berich, the technology will be used to be able to take on more work and keep existing customers happy.

But where does this leave the bricklayers of the world? Must they start updating their resumes and applying for jobs for fear of losing their jobs to helmet-wearing robots?

Fortunately for the construction workers, it is not quite time to hang up their boots. The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers does not seem to show much concern that robots will replace its members anytime soon, ABC News reports.

While SAM may be able to build a wall in an impressive amount of time, the machine does not have the same capabilities that skilled bricklayers have. However, the automated technology can facilitate manual laborers who are often overloaded with a heavy workload due to big projects and not enough co-workers.

Other innovative use-cases of technology in the construction industry include the use of drones. With work sites often spanning across large areas and buildings towering high into the sky, site-inspection by foot can take days even with a large team.But with the use of drone technology, the same job can be done in just a couple of hours by a single pilot.

Silicon Valley-based Kespry is a startup that has developed a drone which can survey construction sites, saving companies a whole lot of time and effort.

According to a mining plant manager, Mike Moy, who has used Kespry’s services to measure piles of rock and sand, the autonomous flying technology can survey a 90-acre site in just 25 minutes. Previously, the company hired a contractor to carry out the same job which would take the whole day.

According to Moy, it is hard to find qualified people who are willing to do this job.

“Nobody wants to get their hands dirty anymore. They want a nice, clean job in an office,” he explained to ABC News.