In China, Amsterdam and Dubai, buildings created with the aid of 3-D printers have gone up quicker, cheaper and with less manpower than stick-built structures. A Japanese construction equipment maker is experimenting with remote-controlled bulldozers and excavators to dig holes and move earth. A handful of U.S. contractors is using drones to survey job sites and add an extra layer of security.
And now, an Australian firm has created a robot that can lay bricks 20 times faster than a mere human— with 73% more efficiency.
Not so long ago, even the hint that a high-tech invention might make construction jobs obsolete would have contractors shaking in their work boots. But at a time when the shortage of skilled labor is acute, robots on the job site could prove more of a relief than a threat.
Robots like the Australian bricklayer "will fill the void that exists due to shrinking numbers of available bricklayers," Fastbrick Robotics CEO Mike Pivac, who created the device, told Gizmag, an online magazine about technology. The robot "should attract young people back to bricklaying, as robotics is seen as an attractive technology. … It's difficult to attract new young people to the trade."
In fact, the next generation of young construction workers might need more than engineering expertise, design talent and physical strength. The contractors of the not-too-distant future are likely to find themselves recruiting construction-savvy computer programmers to create instructions that will operate the drones, remote equipment and robots that will automatically comply — without human drivers.
Pivac’s automated bricklayer, for instance, is linked to a 3-D CAD model of a home, which regulates the placement of each brick. The software calling the robot’s shots "tells" it how, when and where to measure, cut and lay the bricks. The robot is built around an articulated telescopic boom, which readjusts itself 1,000 times per second to ensure accurate placement of the bricks. And the head of the boom pumps mortar between the bricks with precision.
Watch an animated video demonstration of the automated bricklayer at work here.
Pivac claims the robot, named Hadrian for Hadrian’s Wall in the U.K., can brick a house in as little as two days, laying 1,000 bricks an hour — without a lunch break. That's about six weeks quicker than the construction time of a traditional home, estimates Pivac.
Pivac isn't the only inventor working to automate construction sites.
Victor, NY, startup Construction Robotics is testing two semi-automated masonry systems, known as SAM, which apply mortar to bricks and then lay them. The creators pitted its robot against human bricklayers in a side-by-side test, and then tweaked the system to make it lighter, faster and easier to operate from afar.
And bricklaying isn't the only trade in which technology is changing the way work is done — or soon will be. Some examples:
A Norway company, nlink.no has created a robot that can drill tens of thousands of holes in concrete floors and ceilings for placement of anchors without a break, its owners claim.
Robotic systems by Boston-based Artaic can mass-produce tiles that duplicate the look of tiles of various sizes, colors and shapes. The desired tile is photographed, scanned and programmed into the device, which precisely copies it.
Several firms have made remote-controlled demolition robots. One, Danish company, Husqvarna, has a model with a robotic arm that can break concrete and work efficiently, even in extreme heat.
Besides saving time and staffing construction sites that otherwise might lack the labor needed as demand for building surges, the automated workers have the potential to cut down on-the-job accidents.
Even when working long shifts, a robot will never be prone to back injuries or other maladies associated with the physical demands of a construction job, notes Dan Kara, practice director for robotics, automation and intelligence systems for ADI Research.
And reduced worker accidents contribute to a quick payback time, Kara told America's Backbone Weekly, an online publication for small business owners. For Construction Robotics’ bricklayers, for instance, a business owner will recoup the $650,000 investment in two years if the robot works double shifts.