Zurich / Switzerland (ABZ). – A shortage of skilled workers, digitization, and sustainability are just three of the challenges the construction industry faces. Manufacturers of robots-assisted automation solutions see their opportunity here to develop efficiency potential.
The ABZ obtained information from the manufacturer ABB Robotics about how automation approaches can be implemented in the construction industry.
The growing demand for apartments and commercial real estate is countered by the pressure to build more sustainably – while the labor shortage is more significant than ever.
A transformation seems inevitable to resolve the tension between productivity, sustainability, and the effective use of the existing workforce.
But while automation provides a remedy in other branches of industry, its use in construction is manageable. That is about to change: According to a study commissioned by the technology company ABB, 81 percent of the construction companies surveyed are considering investing more in robotics and automation in the next ten years.
Despite spectacular landmarks such as The Shard in London or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the construction industry has benefited little from technological progress in recent years than other sectors such as automobile production.
Many procedures and practices have been the same for generations. There are good reasons for this. Most of the work is still taking place directly on the actual construction site.
Many components and materials are usually still manufactured or put together on site. This restricts the use of production methods such as series production or pre-assembly of components, which have long been standard in other industries – as well as potential economies of scale.
In addition, today’s construction industry is project-based primarily, fragmented, and complex.
Numerous actors are involved in every step, which limits the possibilities for coordination and makes collaboration more difficult. A large part of the work is carried out on-site by more generalists than specialists and is mainly employed temporarily.
On the other hand, there is the increasingly frequent use of digital and integrated processes and tools, such as Building Information Modeling (BIM).
Not only because of this, but things also start to change. A volatile market environment, coupled with constantly new regulations, is causing many players to rethink their working methods.
The tightening of public budgets is creating additional pressure, as is the concern of many people about the affordability of housing. Owners and customers are becoming increasingly demanding and want adaptable buildings and have low operating costs.
In contrast, both owners and governments are interested in more energy-efficient properties that conserve resources or make better use of them in their construction and operation.
The growing urban population and the growing proportion of single-person households add to the complexity.
Finding building land is proving to be a Herculean task in many places. The increasing labor shortage hovers over everything like a sword of Damocles.
According to a global survey of 1,900 construction companies in Europe, the USA, and China commissioned by the robot solutions manufacturer ABB, 91 percent of those surveyed expect a shortage of skilled workers in the next ten years.
In the EU in the second quarter of 2020 alone, more than 200,000 low and high skilled jobs were vacant in the construction sector.
Under the assumption that the jobs are dangerous, younger people in particular often decide against a career in construction. Around 30 percent of accidents at work today occur on the construction site.
At the same time, the risk of being involved in a fatal accident on a construction site is four times higher than in other industries, with an estimated 108,000 deaths per year worldwide.
So how can this large bundle of challenges be mastered? To do this, many turn their gaze to the automotive industry, which is known to have a high level of automation.
Building contractors can use the knowledge gained there as a kind of guideline when they explore ways to achieve the level of productivity of the automobile manufacturers.
The comparison of the industries is by no means absurd: Both manufacture products that require the assembly of a “basic structure,” which is expanded and expanded by adding a large number of components.
Some of the underlying production steps – like welding, attaching doors, inserting windows, aligning screws, and installing electrical equipment – are common in both automotive and residential construction, albeit to varying degrees.
In addition, both industries manufacture a product that, in most cases, can also be adapted to specific customer requirements. Here, too, there are parallels, such as the configuration of the cladding, the color scheme, and the overall shape.
Of course, there are also significant differences in all similarities, and it is crucial always carefully to weigh the actual use of robotics.
Industry forecasts predict the total value of the construction industry worldwide to grow 85 percent to $ 15.5 trillion by 2030.
The manufacturer’s internal analyses of the market potential of robot-assisted automation assume high double-digit growth rates in crucial construction areas, including precast construction and 3D printing. The companies have also recognized this:
More than 80 percent would like to introduce robotics and automation or intensify their use in the next ten years.
Robotics can help reduce waste by improving quality and consistency – an essential aspect since it is estimated that up to a quarter of the material brought in leaves a construction site as waste.
Using automation and digital solutions, construction and manufacturing processes can be made more effective, and construction waste can be avoided right from the start of the project.
Another plus point: Robots increase safety by moving large and heavy loads, working in dangerous areas, and enabling new, safer construction methods, such as the automated production of modular houses and components away from the construction site, robot-assisted welding, and on-site material handling or robot-based 3D printing of entire houses and tailor-made components.
In addition, robots do repetitive and dangerous tasks that humans no longer want to do. Thus, automation helps counteract the industry’s labor and skilled labor shortage and makes construction jobs more attractive again for young people.
According to ABB Robotics, it already has some pilot projects that show how customers in the construction industry have increased their flexibility, productivity, and quality using robots.
These include the automated production of walls, floors, and ceilings for multi-story, affordable housing projects at Autovol in the USA and the automated production of prefabricated modular houses at Intelligent City in Canada.
Here the production output has increased by 15 percent and the speed by 38 percent, while waste has decreased by 30 percent.
The Swedish construction company Skanska uses a robot-based welding application to produce steel reinforcement cages on-site. The automated solution helped to improve the quality, safety, and productivity of employees.
In addition, the company was able to reduce costs, and the environmental impact since the finished, bulky reinforcement cages no longer have to be transported to the construction site.
Schindler’s Swiss elevator manufacturer has developed the “Robotic Installation System for Elevators” – an autonomously working robot installation system – in a joint pilot project with the programming experts from ABB Robotics Switzerland and the ETH Zurich.
For the first time, Schindler is automating the installation of elevators in narrow elevator shafts. The primary task of the robot is to drill holes and set anchor bolts in the lift shaft.
The system even moves from floor to floor using a mechanical winch. The prototype has since proven itself in setting up several new lift systems in Europe and relieves lift fitters from tedious, repetitive, and physically demanding tasks.
Robot-assisted automation has not yet exhausted its potential in the construction industry. Success stories from other industries encourage and motivate companies to invest more in this technology.
The need to improve productivity and efficiency is compounded by the pressures caused by megatrends such as urbanization, labor shortages, changing consumer demands, and the drive to build zero emissions.
Robot-assisted solutions can drive automation in the construction industry. And they are intended to help the industry master challenges such as the need for more affordable and environmentally friendly living space, the reduction of environmental pollution, and the shortage of workers and skilled workers.
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