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This article is by Featured Blogger Charles Towers-Clark from his Blog Page. Republished with the author’s permission.
Automation and robotics has transformed many industries already, most famously manufacturing—but construction is facing its own Industry 4.0 overhaul exactly as manufacturing has seen. In fact, construction and manufacturing might experience a crossover of sorts, with contractors working more with manufacturing technologies, and new market players bringing design, manufacturing, and construction under one roof.
With 3D modeling, additive manufacturing, and digitized construction processes becoming more advanced and more accessible, construction could become more about assembling constituent parts than creating something on-site. This article will conclude the series on robotics and automation in the construction industry, and you can find parts one and two here.
The manufacturing model
Manufacturing has been the most prominent adopter and beneficiary of automation over the last ten or twenty years. From being a fragmented, disjointed industry known for horrific working conditions, the manufacturing industry has become a consolidated, efficient machine, with seamless production processes and integration between departments. This is, of course, thanks to data that connects every part of the chain, from original 3D models through to warehousing and delivery. This sort of uninterrupted data flow could transform the construction industry massively, bringing about the same kind of sea change seen in manufacturing and bringing the industry wholly into the 21st century. In a roundtable discussion at Autodesk University 2019, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost continually compared the interlinked sectors of architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) to manufacturing, saying that “there's so much opportunity to increase productivity in the [AEC] space. 50 years ago manufacturing was just as fragmented as construction is now, and AEC is following the same trajectory [as manufacturing].”
Construction could also benefit from being a latecomer to the automation party, starting at a point where digitization has already infiltrated the industry, and processes are already quite uniform globally. As Anagnost states: “As it is in manufacturing, each country has its own aesthetic variations but the processes underneath are all the same.” Acting as a little brother to the manufacturing industry might not be such a bad idea for construction, lending processes and technologies from the more advanced automation of manufacturing and reaching a point where “general contractors are going to become manufacturers, [and] manufacturers are going to realign some of their processes to feed [construction],” predicts Anagnost. This kind of cross-collaboration and moving between markets is a common theme when it comes to automation, and it seems likely that construction will follow the same formula as it undergoes its own transformation.
Moving to modular
More than simply streamlining processes and cutting out inefficiencies (something desperately needed to improve construction’s “substandard productivity levels” according to Anagnost), making full use of manufacturing processes such as 3D modeling and additive manufacturing could lead to an entirely new direction for construction. “We definitely think modular and pre-fab are leading-edge in construction, there's going to be a trend towards more and more building being done off-site,” says Anagnost. This trend of complete building sections being built off-site and assembled in place—walls replete with electrical fixings and sealed windows, with pre-insulated roofs slotted on top—is only possible with a full chain of accountability and a certain level of automation in place, as Anagnost states: “you have to have tight quality control, model-based processes, tight flow control, good logistics planning; you start to look like a manufacturing company.”
Citing Bryden Wood’s Crossrail project in London as an example of modular construction, Anagnost highlights the potential for existing construction workers to adapt to this way of working. “[Bryden Wood] scanned the whole site and broke it all down into components built off-site. Each day a certain set of components arrived and the team trained on those components assembled them in place,” says Anagnost. This shows that construction workers can be ‘upskilled’ simply by being told to build in a different way, assembling components, and in fact, Anagnost suggests that the perceived problem of upskilling construction workers around data-driven processes is a non-issue: “I think it's easy for people to say that a bricklayer cannot be reskilled, but if they know how to use [a smartphone], they can already participate in automated processes in ways that they couldn't before.” If these data-driven processes can bed themselves into the construction industry smoothly enough, there is no reason to think that existing workers will not be able to adapt to comprehensive digitization and automation—“technology is so easy to use now,” says Anagnost, “find me a two-year-old that can’t use a smartphone.”
Building byte by byte
Whatever the future holds for construction, it is certainly going to involve more data, more digitization, and more automated processes—“it is a case of digitize or die,” says Anagnost. As with most other industries, construction has a host of procedural problems that could be solved by automation and emerging technologies.
With the industry as it stands now (with limited space, resources, and skilled labor) a move towards modular construction practices with building sections being manufactured off-site and assembled in place seems a logical step, and would indeed fit better with the tight margins and clinical efficiency of manufacturing. “This is a multi-year trend in construction,” concludes Anagnost, “in ten years time, the percentage of projects that rely heavily on pre-fabrication will be many times larger than it is today. It just makes sense.”