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Job site automation: Can job sites be more like factories?


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December 5, 2018 by Jacob Stoller

Wolves and construction materials don’t have a lot in common, but finding them can present similar challenges. Thus, a presentation on tracking wolf packs became the inspiration for a unique solution for locating construction materials on job sites.

“I thought, ‘We could track materials that way,’” says the solution’s co-inventor, Carl Haas, who was serving as a participant at a National Science Foundation event in Lake Tahoe.

While the materials tracking solution can be used in many situations, Haas, who is a professor of civil engineering at University of Waterloo and president of the International Association for Automation and Robotics in Construction, was particularly interested in reducing the incidence of high value components going missing on large projects.

“What you get a certain per cent of the time,” Haas says, “is that a high dollar item – say a $100K alloyed globe valve that requires two years of lead time – gets lost under the snow or some bushes, and you just don’t find it. So you reorder, and with the delays, that might cost you millions.”

“If you can reduce these incidents by, say, 80 per cent, that’s a huge impact on the bottom line. And the actual cost of the technology is a very small fraction of that.”

What makes the approach affordable is the complementary use of two technologies – radio telemetry and GPS. Each tracked item is affixed with an inexpensive radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tag that can be pinged by a GPS-equipped handheld device. With the help of triangulation, a worker can quickly determine the exact location of thousands of items.

Selected targets

In order to find receptive markets, inventors have often taken aim at undesirable manual work that is dirty, tedious, or likely to cause injury. Masonry, being physically stressful and repetitive, has been a prime target since the 80s.

Thanks to recent improvements in technology, Construction Robotics, which is based in Victor, New York, now has a commercial solution called SAM, an acronym for semi-automated mason. As the name implies, the bricklaying and mortar-applying machine operates under worker supervision, increasing productivity and eliminating some of the more tedious aspects of the work.

“Every project is unique, which is not something that automation works well with,” says Zak Podkaminer, director of Strategy for the Rochester-area firm. “So the challenge is, how do you control the variables? That’s why we believe that collaborative robots – a semi-automated approach – are the way of the future.”

Inspection work is another target. The affordability of drone technology and image capturing devices has made drone inspections not only safer, but more cost efficient in many applications.

For example, Halifax-based AeroVision Canada, which uses drones to collect data, was hired to gather data on the condition of the stonework at Halifax’s City Hall, a heritage building that has recently been refaced. “The cost was the same or less than just getting the scaffolding they would have needed to do the inspection with traditional methods,” says the company’s CEO, Trevor Bergmann. “Our method substantially reduced the overall risk, and nobody was needlessly working at heights.” 

Drones are also commonly used by AeroVision Canada to inspect wind turbines, Bergmann notes, as well as to track work progress across large areas.

Job site challenges

The geographic dispersion of work and materials, plus variations in scale, terrain, and transportation requirements, make the average job site tough to automate. Haas notes that many attempts to introduce automation on job sites were shelved in the 90s because of limitations in robotic hardware and a relative lack of computing power.

“Processing power then was a hundred thousand or even a million times less per dollar compared with today,” Haas says, “so we’ve got way more opportunity now. Inertial motion units that used to cost a thousand dollars now cost two or three. Robots are lighter and more deployable. And now they’re 3D printing steel bridges and some pretty interesting concrete structures. So we’ve turned a corner.”

Much of the innovation is taking place in modular construction, which sidesteps many job site complexities. “At the most sophisticated end of the industry,” says Haas, “you’re seeing tremendous pre-fabrication, supply chain sophistication, and automation, and you’re seeing the impact.”

Haas notes that construction’s industrial sector, which is where automation is most prevalent, has seen annual productivity increases of over 5.2 per cent over the last decade, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “That’s significantly better than what manufacturing has seen,” he says.

 


Jacob Stoller is principal of StollerStrategies. Send comments to editor@on-sitemag.com

This column originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of On-Site. You can read through the complete issue here.


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