Construction is an industry that has traditionally required a lot of physical work and hands-on tasks. In the past, this made it seem like one of the last fields that could benefit from automation. But recent developments in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), smart vehicles, IoT sensors, increased opportunities for data collection, near-field communication (NFC) and natural language processing have changed all that.
While the development and adoption of automation technologies in construction have been slower than in manufacturing, the time has come for digital construction tools to play a significant role in bringing construction’s digital transformation to fruition.
The construction industry’s continued evolution will rely on automation in its various forms, from automated digital design and analysis processes to automated construction documentation creation and, ultimately, the act of construction. Construction process automation, whether used for off-site prefabrication that mimics advanced manufacturing best practices or on-site construction robotics, will determine the construction industry’s success in meeting its dual 21st-century challenges: high demand for buildings and infrastructure and the requirement for sustainability across the entire lifecycle.
Construction automation and digital-assisted construction can address comparable opportunities and challenges that automated manufacturing processes have assisted in resolving in other industries, such as improving production time, material efficiencies, labor productivity, and worker health and safety, as well as compensating for labour skill shortages, reducing environmental impact, and creating new workflow and quality process opportunities. Simply put, automated construction has the potential to enable the industry to safely meet the world’s building and infrastructure needs as the population grows.
Automation has already begun to reshape and modernize the construction industry. While technology has long been used for monitoring buildings and sites for safety purposes, the use of sensors and intelligent software is expanding these capabilities. In addition to monitoring systems, there are several other ways automation can streamline processes and improve safety in construction projects. Read on below to find out how we explore these opportunities in detail.
What is construction automation and how is it changing the industry?
Construction automation refers to the processes, tools, and equipment used to build buildings and infrastructure using automated workflows. In some cases, tools are used to automate previously manual tasks, while in others, automated tooling enables new processes to be transferred or developed specifically for construction. Automation in construction can occur at various stages of a project, beginning with the software-based design stage, continuing with automated aspects of off-site and on-site construction, and concluding with the sharing of collected data on the systems and energy use of finished buildings—all captured in cloud-based digital models.
The construction industry has been slow to develop and adopt automated processes due to the high initial investment, complexities of implementation, trade segregation, and a lack of construction-specific tools. However, a revival of construction automation is currently underway, aided by collaboration among businesses, governments, and academia. BIM (Building Information Modeling) and artificial intelligence-driven computer-assisted design tools provide robust data with sophisticated architectural design and data-management capabilities, which are combined with rapidly advancing robotics and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to fuel construction’s digitization and integration with manufacturing techniques. Lower-cost hardware, combined with new workflows that connect design-to-robotic fabrication workflows, opens up new possibilities for transferring industrial robotics to the field of construction.
Automation can reduce overall construction costs by increasing efficiency and decreasing labor costs. It can also improve safety by reducing injuries and worker fatigue. Some automation solutions include project management software for construction managers, mobile data collection devices for field workers, robotic arms for building site cranes, and automated task-tracking systems. Automation-driven construction management software can be used in several ways, including:
- Managing schedule, workflow, daily site task lists, and project budget
- Creating, mapping, and working from digital plans of a construction project
- Tracking project progress and generating real-time reporting of actions taken on-site
- Communicating and collaborating with subcontractors and trade specialists
- Generating reports for stakeholders at any stage of the build
How does automation and AI intersect with the construction industry?
Automation refers to the use of technology to perform a task automatically. Artificial intelligence leverages computers, machine learning, and responsive software to mimic the problem-solving and decision-making capabilities of the human mind. AI can be applied in multiple industries, including construction, smart facility management, building, and fire safety audits, defect management, and more. It can be used to analyze data and make predictions about future events. It can also be used to automate processes such as machine learning and autonomous driving.
It’s important to note that automation and AI aren’t the same things. Automation refers to using technology to do a task more efficiently or effectively. AI refers to using technology to make decisions based on previous experience.
What are the different types of construction automation?
1. Off-Site Construction Automation
Off-site construction automation refers to practices that transform the construction process into something more akin to modern automated manufacturing. Off-site construction encompasses several terms that are similar but not synonymous, such as prefabrication, volumetric and panelized modular construction, and precast. Construction processes are moved off-site and into factories, where they can be optimized to take advantage of automation, industrial robotics, digital production workflows, and design-for-manufacture and assembly (DfMA) strategies.
Off-site automation is more common in the building industry than automated on-site operations, and proximity to manufacturing has made direct technology transfer from manufacturing easier, with one major caveat. Automated production lines are typically used in high-volume manufacturing where the part size, shape, and assembly sequence are consistent across thousands of units. While the construction of buildings, roads, and bridges include the assembly of manufactured parts, the diversity of materials and processes, as well as the inherent variation from component to component and between projects, presents a unique challenge for tooling (the configuration of automated equipment in a production line), and the production line must be automated while also being configurable enough to respond to variation.
Factory automation is a significant investment, but it can save time, money, and resources in the long run while improving quality control and assurance and providing safer, more comfortable working conditions for employees by eliminating many of the repetitive tasks associated with typical construction processes. Factory-based construction has the potential to reduce waste, use less water, reduce operational energy and dust pollution, and optimize material use, reuse, and recycling. And, when combined with automated processes, it will play a significant role in meeting global building and infrastructure demands. Some of the most ambitious automated construction factories are designed to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week – with little human intervention.
2. On-Site Automation
Factory-based construction automation may be considered a technology transfer from manufacturing (with some exceptions), where automated tooling is configured to produce building elements rather than products. On-site construction automation, on the other hand, presents distinct challenges and opportunities. Developing and deploying equipment requires new equipment and processes, making it a natural choice for research, new business activity, and start-ups. Construction automation machinery designed for on-site use must be portable enough to travel to job sites, set up, use, and disassemble before moving on to the next job. Existing equipment, such as heavy earth-moving machinery, has been retrofitted in some cases, and new equipment is increasingly being designed with an automated or semiautomated future in mind.
Early examples of on-site automation resulted in building systems that were specialized to work with those automated construction systems, reducing the uniqueness of the building in many cases. Today, there is a second attempt at automated construction that allows for variation across divisions while also employing streamlined elements. Automated equipment that places concrete reinforcement, for example, eliminates repetitive tasks on the job site; allows performance-driven variability in rebar placement without incurring additional costs; and reduces waste by placing material precisely where it is needed.
Many of the same issues that prove challenging for the manufacturing sector —productivity, labor shortages, material waste, and production time—also prove challenging for the construction industry. The manufacturing industry has solved or is attempting to solve, all of these issues through automation. Construction automation is now poised to meet the growing challenges of developing the built environment.
Construction automation has grown significantly over the last 50 years, and it is now in a prime position to help solve some of the problems plaguing the current construction industry. It will contribute to bridging the skilled-labor gap by attracting younger workers who are intrigued by advanced technology. It can help to make construction sites safer for all workers while also increasing insight and analysis through data collection. And, perhaps most importantly, it can aid in the resolution of the housing crisis. With the global population on the rise, designing and building more sustainable structures—using things like automation, off-site modular construction, robotics, and electric construction equipment—can help make the world a better place for future generations.