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Improving operations with robotics in construction

HP SitePrint Blog

Improving operations with robotics in construction

HP SitePrint Blog

Twenty years ago, commercial construction sites had skilled workers wearing hard hats and looking at paper-based plans. Project managers, architects, and engineers huddled around desks in portable offices to discuss changes to site layouts. Permits meant a trip to city hall. There was limited use of robotics in construction.
Today, construction sites use mobile devices, whether tablets or smartphones, to look at updated plans or work order changes. Many cities allow builders to apply for permits online. However, the industry still lags behind in digitizing its operations.
Part of the industry's reluctance to adopt technology comes from the decentralized nature of construction. Complex builds mean coordinating different trades, equipment operators, and material delivery. It means planning and scheduling to get the right people on-site at the right time. Sometimes, the process feels too fragmented for technology to help.

Changes in the economic landscape, labor shortages, and supply chain disruptions have converged to make the industry more open to technical solutions. Technologies such as automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) are being incorporated to reduce costs, improve safety, and minimize environmental impact. Robotics in construction is becoming part of the industry's drive to digital transformation.

History of robotics in construction

Japan began using automation and robotics following World War II. Labor shortages and a struggling economy led engineers to create industrial and automotive robots. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan deployed construction robots to help with material handling, rebar placement, and concrete applications. Although other countries were experimenting with automation, Japan was the first to embrace its application.
The current landscape mirrors that of post-war Japan. Labor shortages in the United States slow construction. Inflation eats into every company's bottom line. Supply chain disruptions delay projects by weeks. 
Add overall construction complexity to these challenges, and navigating the construction landscape becomes virtually impossible without technology. According to a recent survey, 40% of construction companies say a lack of digital tools hampers their business growth.

Benefits of robotics in construction execution

The market for robots in construction is expected to grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.50% between 2023 and 2028. Benefits such as the following are driving the growth:

  • Better efficiency. Robots work continuously. Their production doesn't fluctuate. Consistent work capability can shorten construction schedules and ensure on-time delivery.

  • Improved safety. Accepting risk is part of construction work; however, robots can reduce risk by handling hazardous materials and performing strenuous tasks.

  • Enhanced precision. Automated solutions reduce errors. Following their programming, robots can replicate building materials with precision. If steel beams need to be 25 feet 3 inches, then automation will deliver beams with that measurement. 

  • Sustainability. Construction contributes almost 40% of the world's carbon emissions. Finding more energy-efficient construction methods can help. Robots operate more efficiently. More precise measurements and construction techniques can also help eliminate waste.

Robots can reduce material costs through more efficient use, generating less waste. They can augment human tasks to reduce the physical stress placed on workers. As technology advances, AI can help robots predict outcomes to improve operations.

Applications of robotics in construction execution

Construction robots can range from semi-autonomous devices to remote-controlled drones. For example, a brick or cement block robot can help workers by lifting and placing blocks. Some robots can build a brick wall with an employee monitoring their efforts to ensure integrity. Drones can be used to survey potential sites quickly and with greater accuracy.
Robots can be used for the following:

  • Demolition. Not every construction site is new construction. When companies need older structures removed, walls dismantled, or fixtures excised, demolition robots can perform the tasks quickly while minimizing exposure to chemicals and debris.

  • Excavation. Construction robots can dig. They can move soil quickly or dig trenches for utility lines. The excavation can be performed to precise measurements.

  • Welding. For many construction teams, welding is part science and part art. Welding robots replicate structurally sound welds, ensuring reliable connections that preserve building integrity.

  • Material handling. Moving materials from point A to point B consumes resources on any construction site. Robots can lift and transport heavy materials and equipment efficiently. They reduce the risk to workers and can perform tasks outside of peak work hours.

  • Construction execution. Robotic printers can also assist with site preparation, concrete construction, and prefabricated construction. Their involvement improves construction execution.

Precision surveying and site preparation

Architects create building models to illustrate how large structures are constructed. These 3D computer models provide impressive visuals. However, these models may not translate to the building floor. When a digital process is unavailable, a framer must draw a map on the floor to show where to position walls and other fixtures.
Using string, tape measures, and chalk, a framer attempts to create an accurate representation of the computer model a floor at a time. Slight deviations can result in design or configuration changes because a wall is a little shorter or a little closer than on the digital version. Depending on the discrepancy, rework may be required.
Autonomous site printing robots can print the plan onto the floor using the digital (CAD) files used to create the 3D models. A site printer such as HP SitePrint can translate digitized details to print lines, mark openings, and locate mechanical, electrical, and plumbing. With text-printing capabilities, site printers can add a wealth of information to the plans. The text can also clarify instructions. The precise results minimize errors created through inaccurate measurements.

Challenges and limitations

While robots can enable the industry to reduce costs, improve worker safety, and encourage sustainability, automation is not without its challenges. For many, the upfront cost is a primary obstacle. However, automated solutions are an investment in the future.
It's not an assessment of today's cost but a calculation of long-term benefits. It's looking at the opportunity cost of lost projects because of building errors. Automation means more reliable delivery schedules.
The cost of ongoing maintenance and upgrades is also a factor for construction companies when looking at the life-cycle costs of a construction robot. Given the intricacies of operation, manufacturers or designated servicers will be providing maintenance and repairs. Most robots support remote access, reducing the time to repair and on-site costs.
Training will also be a consideration, as most existing workers have limited experience with robotics in construction. It may take time for employees to become proficient in their use. However, the opportunity to work with advanced technologies can be attractive to younger applicants.

The future of robots in construction

While the construction industry may have been slow to embrace digital transformation, the economic landscape is forcing its leaders to look at technology as a solution to rising inflation, a shrinking labor force, and regulatory pressures for environmentally responsible practices.
For more information on how site printing can help transform your operations, reach out and learn more about HP SitePrint today.

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