February 18, 2019 by Jacob Stoller
In the 1959 sci-fi novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein introduced, perhaps for the first time, the concept of the powered exoskeleton — a motor-assisted armoured suit that gives its wearer superhuman strength. Since then, exoskeletons have shown up in countless sci-fi books and films, from Alien to Star Wars, and more recently, in emerging real-life applications in fields such as the military, healthcare, manufacturing and construction.
The idea of combining human brainpower with robotic capabilities makes a lot of sense in construction, where it’s proven difficult to automate many of the tasks that are commonly executed by robots in controlled factory environments. Larger exoskeletons that give their users superhuman strength are currently available from vendors such as Hyundai and Panasonic. It will probably take some time, however, before such devices start regularly appearing on job sites.
“Those things are heavy, and from what I’ve seen, still fairly slow, so they raise a lot of questions in terms of safety and practicality,” says Tanner Clark, director, of BIM/VDC Construction Services at Calgary-based construction firm Stuart Olson. “In an indoor environment, where you can control pretty much everything, it makes sense, but in a real-world construction environment where weather and ground conditions change all the time, I don’t know how practical something like that would be.”
On the other hand, lighter and simpler exoskeletons, while not providing superhuman strength, can help ease the stress on job sites. One possible candidate is the EksoWorks Vest created by the Richmond, Calif. vendor Ekso Bionics, which provides arm and shoulder support to alleviate the strain of lifting objects. A 16-kilogram (35-pound) tool held at shoulder level by a user wearing the vest seems weightless, according to the company.
“We see exoskeletons as a potential way to reduce repetitive stress injuries while giving workers more control over what they’re working on,” says John Rygg, technology strategist at Omaha, Neb.-based Kiewit Corp. “This would allow older workers to stay on the job longer, and help them to be more productive.”
Rygg cautions, however, that these are early days. “This isn’t common yet in construction, so we’re looking at other industries that might have similar uses. So we’re still in the research stage — we’ll need to see use cases within the job site.”
LARGER SCALE ROBOTICS
The industry is also seeing large-scale robotic solutions that can be transported to a job site to execute specific tasks. Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Advanced Construction Robotics (ACR) has recently commercialized the Tybot, a robotic machine that automates the tedious and stressful task of tying large numbers of rebar intersections on bridges and other large structures.
Site workers make the initial ties in the traditional way in order to frame and stabilize the mat, and then the robot takes over, tying all of the remaining intersections. Interestingly, Tybot isn’t programmed to tie each intersection according to a plan — instead, it employs sensors and artificial intelligence to identify the tie points, allowing it to work in the same way a human worker does.
The technology was designed to leverage both human and mechanical capabilities in order to achieve the best synergy possible. “When we develop a new product in the robotics realm — and this is something we pride ourselves in doing — we have to make a very smart decision on what the robot does and what the worker does, because they are way more productive together than they would be if they were completely independent,” says Jeremy Searock, ACR co-founder and vice-president. “So going forward in the future of construction with robotics, it’s going to be a mutual relationship where they are going to help each other out, where each exercises their best skillset.”
ACR is developing additional solutions, including one that will soon be publicized, which the company hopes will help transform the industry. “There’s a labor shortage in construction,” says Stephen Muck, the company’s co-founder and president, “and we’ll be offsetting that, and hopefully adding some appeal to the younger generation to enter this industry as technology starts to more heavily permeate how we do things. We also hope to eliminate, over time, some of the more strenuous and dangerous activities that are less attractive for the workforce. Finally, robots can help older workers prolong their work careers without the physical limitations.”
BRINGING THE FACTORY TO THE JOB SITE
Much of the application of robotics in construction takes place not on-site, but in factories that produce modularized components that are then shipped to job sites. However, lighter and more adaptable robots are now making it possible to reverse this trend, bringing portable robotic machines to the job site.
There are several reasons for doing this. Shipping large components can be troublesome and costly, particularly to remote areas, and once the shipment arrives on the job site, there can be compatibility issues. “That creates an overhead that we think can be overcome by bringing the robots on site,” says Asbjørn Søndergaard, chief technology officer of robotics manufacturer Odico, based in Odense, Denmark.
Odico specializes in the fabrication of advanced concrete formwork, and is introducing a new robotic product, Factory on the Fly, which creates formwork on the job site. The robot ships in a standard shipping container, and is operated by file-to-fabrication workflow software that can be controlled by a non-specialized construction worker from a standard iPad.
The underlying technology uses sophisticated parametric software to control the hot-wire cutting of EPS molds — a method that has been tested on over 250 projects, including some high profile buildings in Europe. It’s up to 126 times faster than CNC milling of EPS or timber molds, according to the company.
Søndergaard sees robotics as a positive trend on a number of levels. On one hand, Factory on the Fly reduces the project risks of deploying complex concrete formwork, encouraging architects to come up with bolder designs. On the other, on-site robotics will ultimately lead to a better work environment.
“We see robotic systems as complementary — augmenting the work of the construction worker,” says Søndergaard. “Construction is very complex, so what we want to see is robotic systems that don’t wear your construction worker down. Such systems would enable an occupation for a construction worker where you can function as well when you’re 65 as when you’re 25.”
THE ORIGINAL JOB SITE ROBOTS
Perhaps the earliest “real-world” examples of human-assisted robotics on the job site can be found in site preparation, where dozers and excavators have employed automation technology for many years. As in other areas of job site automation, the concept of humans and technology working side-by-side remains central to the deployment strategy.
“We see further automation on machines through what we call task assistance — machine control coupled with workflow automation,” says Denver-based John Naughton, business area manager for Machine Control at Trimble. “This makes new and less experienced operators more productive and really efficient on a job site, and also improves those experienced operators in terms of their performance. So we see a lot of efficiency gains.”
One of the advances driving the improved capabilities is the wide deployment of 3D grading, where a combination of sensors and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) technology allows a blade to be positioned precisely in both a horizontal and vertical plane.
The technology eliminates operator guesswork, and the need for the operator to be guided by another worker. “The 3D technology puts the drawing in the hands of the operator, to achieve speed and accuracy that you wouldn’t otherwise achieve,” says Kyle Birch, the Canadian Machine Control sales manager for Leica Geosystems. “This gives operators a huge increase in productivity.”
A key advantage is that the newer systems are actually simpler from an operations perspective than the older 2D systems. “The time to get an operator up and running is about 20 minutes,” says Birch.
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
Behind every robotic solution is data — often lots of it — and the hidden challenge behind robotic advances will be securing and managing that data.
According to Chris Dill, vice-president and CIO with Kiewit Technology Group, IT departments are getting ready for the challenge.
“In construction, the annual IT spend has gone from half a per cent of revenue to 1.1 per cent of revenue — so it’s doubled in about six years,” says Dill, “and automation would inevitably be part of that.”
Robotic vendors typically provide their own software in the form of cloud solutions, but most applications require some form of integration with the contractor’s background IT systems. “In each case, we have to look at the interface with other software that we’re currently using to support the rest of the company,” says Clark. “Otherwise, you find yourself continually having to reinvest in your back-end systems.”
The good news is that automation is nothing new for IT departments. “Automation is not just about lifting heavy things and moving dirt,” says Dill. “We’re looking at software bots that can automate business processes and take a burden off people at our job sites. So no more sitting around and matching invoices and paying invoices. We can automate that through software and that takes a burden off those people and they can spend more time doing their real job, which is planning and executing work.”