The construction industry is lagging behind in the development and introduction of automation technology compared to manufacturing. However, it can be said that the time when construction automation technology plays a major role toward full-scale construction is ripe.
Future continued evolution in the construction industry will rely on automation in many forms, from automated digital design and analysis processes to automated creation of implementation blueprints and construction work. Off-site, which mimics advanced manufacturing best practices, is the success or failure of tackling two challenges in the construction industry in the 21st century: high demand for buildings and infrastructure and the need for sustainability throughout the life cycle. Prefabrication, on-site construction robots, etc. will have an impact.
Construction automation is automated, including improving production time, material efficiency, labor productivity, worker health and safety, compensating for labor shortages, reducing environmental impact, and creating new design opportunities. It has the potential to address the same opportunities and challenges that the manufacturing process has solved. In short, construction automation has the potential to safely meet the global needs of construction and infrastructure as the population grows. From new technology developments and industry trends, we can read the signal that it is time to control automation.
What is Construction Automation?
The term construction automation describes the process, tools, and equipment used to build buildings and infrastructure using automated workflows. In some cases, tools are introduced to automate tasks that were traditionally done manually, and in other cases, automated tools enable the transition to new processes and process development specialized for construction. Automation in architecture occurs at various stages of the project, from software-based design stages, off-site and on-site construction automation, to system and energy utilization data sharing collected from completed buildings, all at all. For example, collaborative robots and industrialized building strategies, new types of robots and automated machines, real-time site detection, feedback, and adaptation are technologies and strategies that are being integrated to widely realize automation in construction.
Industrial Construction (IC) is a term inspired by the manufacturing industry and is used to define the strategic use of materials, processes, and systems in the construction process. Although industrialized construction is not synonymous with construction automation, the two are linked. With the increasing introduction of automated tools, the strategy of industrialized construction will have a great impact on the way construction is done. Currently, industrialized construction mainly refers to off-site construction, to which manufacturing technology is widely applied.
Since industrialized construction originates from manufacturing, it offers the certainty, safety, and quality assurance that predictable variables not found in traditional construction offer, and the potential for highly automated and advanced manufacturing technology.
Types of Construction Automation
- Off-site Construction Automation:
Off-site construction automation refers to the practice of bringing the construction process closer to modern automated manufacturing. Prefabrication, volumetric panel modular construction, precast, etc. are not synonymous but are close to off-site construction automation. These practices move the construction process from site to factory in a familiar and controlled environment that can be optimized using automation, industrial robots, and digital production workflows.
Off-site automation is more common in the construction industry than on-site automation, and although direct technology transfer is possible from close manufacturing, there is one important caveat. For manufacturing, it is common to use automated production lines for mass production of thousands of units with the same part size, shape, and assembly order. In the case of construction of buildings, roads and bridges, the manufactured parts are assembled, but the variety of materials and processes, the variation of parts and projects are the installation of machine tools (composition of automated equipment on the production line). And the production line needs to be configured not only for automation but also for variations.
Factory automation is a big investment, but in the long run, it saves time, money, and resources while improving quality control and quality assurance. It can also provide workers with a safer and more comfortable environment by eliminating many repetitive tasks associated with the general construction process. Factory-based construction brings environmental benefits by reducing waste, reducing water usage, reducing operational energy and dust pollution, and optimizing the use, reuse, and recycling of materials. Combined with automated processes, it will also play a major role in meeting the global demand for buildings and infrastructure.
- On-site construction automation:
Factory-based construction automation may be considered a transfer of technology from manufacturing, with some exceptions, in which the automated machine tools are configured to manufacture construction elements rather than products. However, on-site construction automation offers unique challenges and opportunities that are different from traditional ones. Construction automation machines for fieldwork must be mobile so that they can be easily moved to the site, set up there, and then withdrawn after use to move on to the next job. In some cases, existing machines such as heavy civil engineering machines are being remodeled, and the production of new equipment with a view to automation and semi-automation is increasing.
- Robots in Construction:
Robots, especially industrial robot arms and mobile robot platforms, play an important role in the automation of construction. Some readers may envision a future where construction-specific robots will emerge, but at present, manufacturing-based robots are being diverted to construction. Construction robots will be specially designed to navigate unstably and constantly changing worksite environments.
Benefits of Automation of Construction Work
Many of the benefits of automation of construction work are correlated and linked, so focusing on enhancing one benefit will lead to further benefits. Automation helps to complete projects faster and more efficiently, which often results in environmental benefits and more sustainable construction.
Construction automation has contributed to sustainability efforts in the industry in many ways, like:
- Automation technologies such as drones will support the construction of renewable energy facilities such as wind turbines and rooftop solar power.
- Offsite modular construction maximizes material by increasing recycling rates and reducing waste material.
- Efficient transportation of off-site manufacturing modules to the site can reduce the average travel distance of workers by 75%.
- Construction robots tend to work faster and more accurately than humans, reducing production delays and thereby reducing the effects of machine operation and noise. The high accuracy of the robot also reduces the waste of materials due to errors and rework.
- Resolving labor shortages:
To deal with the labor shortage in the construction industry, various efforts will be required, such as resuming technical and vocational education in junior and high schools. However, increasing the use of construction automation is a combination of reducing reliance on traditional technology, which is approaching the retirement of skilled workers, and appealing to young workers who are accustomed to and welcome advanced technology. But the fact is what machines do is automate tasks, not work. For example, human work may not be to pierce but to work with a robot that can puncture faster and more accurately, and maintain the robot. The introduction of these technologies may also increase the base salary of workers with the necessary skills.
For these reasons, construction automation needs to go hand in hand with new strategies for personalized lifelong education that provide workers with skill-up and re-education throughout their careers, with funding from construction companies and governments.
- Improved safety:
The construction industry is known as a high-risk industry for workers. Automated and industrialized construction can bring more construction processes to a controlled environment and reduce the risk to human safety. Robots can handle larger and heavier loads and can work in spaces that are dangerous to humans.
- Improved predictability and quality:
The standard construction process for inspection and licensing is inefficient compared to the manufacturing industry. If the manufacturer proves that it can be manufactured repeatedly with a certain predictable quality, it can be UL (United Laboratories) certified. As the construction industry becomes more automated and industrialized, it will be possible to utilize high-quality, reproducible, and predictable building components while reducing inspection processes.
- Improving knowledge and analysis through data collection:
Due to the nature of construction automation, data management is very easy. By properly analyzing and making changes to that data, you can reduce risk, increase profits, and save time and material, Construction management software helps to process and analyze data quickly and accurately.
It is clear that construction automation has evolved significantly over the last 50 years, and it is in a good position to solve the problems that prevail in the current construction industry. Appealing to young workers interested in advanced technology will help address the shortage of skilled workers. It also helps to make the site a safer place for all workers and to enhance their knowledge and analytical skills by collecting data. And perhaps most importantly, it can help tackle the housing problem. Until now, the construction industry has been notorious for its negative impact on the environment, but it is more sustainable with automation technology, off-site module construction, robots, electric construction machinery, etc. Designing and constructing a unique structure can help create a better world for the next generation.