The pace of change in the construction industry is accelerating quickly. That requires knowing where the market is going and frequently examining business practices accordingly. While that presents a challenge, it also presents a chance to position oneself well for the work ahead. There are expected to be an additional 2 billion people on Earth by 2050. To meet those needs, humanity will need to build approximately 13,000 structures every day for 30 years.
Such a boom means unprecedented opportunities for AI and robotics to transform construction methods. The combined power of robotics with AI and machine learning data analysis and process automation has the potential to make construction much faster, less expensive, and less wasteful while making human jobs safer and less physically debilitating. Yet how should construction companies mired in the economic realities of today gear up for the fast-paced demands of tomorrow?
MassRobotics, a Boston innovation hub for robotics/automation start-ups, launched more than five years ago to accelerate and scale the visions of robotics entrepreneurs. It now has more than 50 companies in residence at its shared office/lab space, fosters a cluster of 350 robotics companies on the East Coast, and has expanded to work with start-ups around the world. On November 12, 2020, MassRobotics, in collaboration with Autodesk Technology Centers, held the Robotics In Construction virtual summit to outline the state of construction technology innovation, pinpoint the needs of construction companies in the field today, and showcase some new solutions coming from some of the most promising construction technology start-ups. This confluence of industry knowledge suggested several ways for construction companies to break the barriers to AI and robotics adoptions, as well as ways for the technology providers to help them do it.
Regardless of a firm’s size, a construction company wanting to take its first steps into AI and robotics can start with some of the more mature technologies that are available. For example, using drones for aerial inspection of roofs, pipes, and more has become somewhat typical according to Jay Connolly, President and CEO of the construction management, developer, and planning and design company Connolly Brothers, and a speaker at the Robotics In Construction event. Although Connolly calls it a small company, Connolly Brothers has operated for 140 years in the industry, in part for its willingness to adapt over time, he says.
Another event speaker, Dan Linscott, Field Division Manager of the Boston-area commercial real estate company Cummings Properties, calls drone inspections a “game changer” for inspections. “You can get them in places you could never get a helicopter,” he says.
A second opportunity is to adopt the offsite prefabrication of pieces to be installed on the jobsite, which can save time and cost, as well as increase worker safety because the prefabrication takes place in a controlled environment. In the Robotics In Construction keynote, Jim Lynch, Vice President & General Manager of Autodesk Construction Solutions, explained that this is part of the “industrialization of construction,” which applies advanced manufacturing techniques to creating built environment elements. As such, it takes advantage of the efficiencies, precision, and data collection of robotics from technologies such as additive manufacturing and automating tasks like welding.
Construction firms can also use the Autodesk Construction Cloud to digitize, integrate, and optimize processes, Lynch says, and bring together workflows from designing and planning to building and operation. Doing so enables the platform’s cloud computing AI to perform predictive analytics and risk mitigation.
Skanska and Suffolk Construction, the two largest construction firms represented at the Robotics In Construction event, have enacted strategies to identify and evaluate robotics, AI, and other technology solutions, as well how best to implement them.
Skanska is a global construction management and development company headquartered in Sweden. Event speaker Mike Zeppieri, Director of Innovation Services, Skanska USA, works in the group that brought BIM and VDC (virtual design and construction) to Skanska as part of its effort to drive the company’s digitalization strategy. Zeppieri’s group now explores all the various technologies disrupting construction, such as data analytics, reality capture, industrialized construction, drones and robotics. He says they are particularly interested in robotics that can enforce some of Skanska’s core values, such as safety, care-for-life, and sustainability. These would include for example exoskeletons and any other robotics that would not replace workers, but rather enhance their expertise and abilities by decreasing the physical toll on their bodies.
Raja Ghawa, Investment Associate of Suffolk Construction, a $4 billion general contractor headquartered in Boston, explained that the company explores new technologies through several branches they call “pillars of innovation.” The first of these, Suffolk CoLabs, has seven directors in seven cities across the US who collaborate with operational staff at more than 100 jobsites to find out their pain points and consider possible solutions to them. Suffolk CoLabs is tracking more than 60 technological solutions—many of them in the robotics and AI space—quantifying their results and measuring which of them will scale.
Suffolk’s process with CoLabs has given the company enough practical insight to start Suffolk Technology, a corporate venture capital practice that by the end of 2020 will have invested in nine companies providing construction technology as a way for Suffolk to have “skin in the game” and share in the upside of some of the best solutions that Suffolk CoLabs has identified. For its latest effort, called Boost, Suffolk solicited applications from ConTech start-ups who wanted their most urgent challenge solved and chose five finalist companies to work with a Suffolk senior operational leader for a month to solve that problem. Those companies included Canvas, which uses robotics to automate drywall finishes, and Diamond Age, a robotic construction company that 3D prints homes.
Construction companies that are interested in robotics and AI but don’t like what they see in the marketplace can also try just asking for what they’d rather have. Virtually all the parties involved at the Robotics In Construction event encouraged increased dialog between construction companies, robotics companies, and software providers like Autodesk to pinpoint how robotics and AI solutions can best address the specific needs of the construction industry, so that these automated systems are not “technology in search of a problem,” as Zeppieri put it.
He and Ghawa both cited a strong ROI position as a major factor holding up the adoption of robotics and AI in construction. Robotics creators could begin to alleviate that concern by making specialized construction systems. For example, instead of offering to put robots on scissor lifts, which Zeppieri said are part of the safety problem, why not replace the scissor lifts altogether with a rail system and many smaller robots swarming along the rails performing tasks?
Linscott also presented several very specific opportunities for jobsite robots, such as a robot for auto-welding corrugated metal decking for roofs and floors, a slab saw cutting machine, a line painter for parking lots, and a robot washer for exterior facade glass.
In general, Connolly recommended that ConTech companies break down all the disparate processes of construction, such as site work, concrete, steel, drywall, plumbing, electrical, etc. and look for ways to standardize and improve the process for safety, efficiency, cost reduction, and ease of labor. He says that has already worked for subcontractors in the concrete foundation industry, a field formerly very entrenched in old methods that now is roboticized and takes a fraction of the time to complete.
Connolly encouraged ConTech firms to work with companies like his on their ideas. In fact, Connolly Brothers already collaborates with one of the many start-ups that presented their technology at Robotics In Construction: Human Dynamics, which makes tele-operated Drobot drones for accessing any high places and performing gripping and manipulation tasks.
The other presenting start-ups are also pursuing human-enhancing or task-specific applications for construction sites:
With the continued cooperation and collaboration between the start-up community, construction companies, and software developers, the construction industry can continue to take advantage of the massive potential of AI and robotics where it’s needed most.