Speaking to the Financial Times, Zak Podkaminer, Operations Manager New York-based Construction Robotics, relates an anecdote. 40 years ago his father Nate, the company’s founder, found a building his construction company had completed was 7 foot longer than it should have been. That was the case despite meticulous planning and diligent oversight of the construction process. Unfortunately, on a big project, the accumulation of small instances of human error often meant such discrepancies resulted.
Construction Robotics was founded by Nate Podkaminer in 2007, though it wasn’t until 2013 that the company completed its first job using a robot. The finished building, comparable to that which 40 years earlier had been out by 7 foot, was 2 inches outside of the plans. The company now works with SAM100 (Semi-Autonomous Mason) robots, which automate the brick laying process. The SAM100 can lay more than 3000 bricks in 8 hours, compared to 300-600 for a human mason. And the robot brick layer isn’t just faster than its human counterparts. It is also more accurate and reduces waste. A mobile app that works in conjunction with the robot provides the site foreman with data such as when each brick was laid and what the weather conditions such as temperature and humidity were.
The global construction industry accounts for around 13% of world GDP – around $10 trillion annually. It also employs 7% of the global workforce. Unfortunately, the industry’s productivity is low and declining further and there is a huge shortage of skilled labour. The industry also uses methods largely similar to those of a century earlier. It’s also Europe’s least digitalised sector. Construction is in need of a revolution. The human population is growing and there is a huge housing deficit in many towns, cities and whole countries. And one of the main reasons why property is so expensive to buy is because it is so expensive to construct.
The SAM100 is not the only example of the latest technology in the world of robotics making its mark on the construction industry. It’s not even the only specialist bricklayer. Fastbrick, an Australian tech company, has developed the Hadrian X. The robotic arm uses blocks 15 times the size of a regular brick. Fastbrick Chief Execute Mike Pivac told the FT:
“We’ve got a machine that can produce a square metre of wall in 2.5 minutes and a complete house structure in 16 hours. The nifty part is its ‘dynamic stabilisation technology’, which means that the robotic arm can place bricks and other materials more than 100ft away with sub-millimetre accuracy, regardless of movement caused by wind or other factors”.
Apparently the Saudi Arabian government has already ordered 100 and, if it works as well as described, it presumably won’t be long before a lot more Hadrian X-s are being shipped.
In the UK, house builder Balfour Beatty has already predicted the construction site of 2050 will be human free. Robot teams will work together under the supervision of drones constantly scanning the work being carried out, checking quality and collecting data to help predict potential problems and solve them before they happen.
There are legitimate concerns how robots replacing much of the 7% of global employment the construction industry accounts for will impact the wider economy and individual livelihoods. However, most experts are confident that, as has been the case in the past, the economy will adjust and humans will simply have different occupations.