Robotics in Construction - The Terminator or co-worker?

Date: 
Thursday, June 28, 2018

Impacts of robotics go well beyond construction. The International Labour Office reported last year that 47 per cent of U.S. jobs were at a high risk due to robotics in the next 10 to 20 years.

By David Hogben

SAM the bricklaying robot stokes fears of a construction industry Terminator, a robot wiping out goodpaying construction industry jobs.

SAM — Semi-Automated Mason — lays 3,000 bricks a day, six times more than most bricklayers. SAM needs no bathroom breaks, no coffee or lunch breaks and doesn’t need to sleep. (Search “Semi-Automated Mason” on Youtube.)

SAM and his robotic companions have led to forecasts of massive job loss in the construction industry. The Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) estimates that by 2057 robots could eliminate 2.7 million jobs in the U.S. construction industry. But a closer look shows there is little need to panic – even for those starting a career as a bricklayer, the frontline of robotics in the construction industry.

Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 2 president Geoff Higginson said he would still recommend a young person pursue a career as a bricklayer. “Absolutely,” he said. “I would still tell them: ‘Yes, get into the trade because there are many different aspects that cannot be done that way.'"

Higginson met last year with a group of Washington State contractors who demonstrated their recently purchased robotic bricklayers.

“They are good for a certain type of work,” Higginson said. “They do increase productivity but they have to be specifically set up…The cost efficiency of this type of machinery is only evident when the project is of a large enough size and the walls are big enough that it would be worth the setup time. You have to move the machinery in there. You have to set up the rails. Once you are set up, it does go great blazes.”

But a qualified worker is still needed to finish corners and handle other details. Someone needs to feed the machine mortar, blocks and bricks and someone needs to maintain the machine.

“It’s not rocket science,” Higginson said. “You will have a specialist who knows how to set the rails and all that. You need somebody familiar with masonry construction to do that.”

He also pointed out that there are residential and industrial projects that are not suited for robotic bricklayers because they are too small or varied in detail for robotics to work well.

The International Labour Office, based in Geneva, prepared a report stating that robots might end up being co-workers rather than replacement workers. Better than robots or humans working alone, the report found that robots and humans working together are the most productive teams and the most flexible at customizing work.

“A study at a BMW plant found that assembly lines with co-bots working alongside workers are more efficient than teams of workers or robots alone,” states the report.

Similarly, Higginson has seen robotic helpers that do the heavy brick and block lifting while the worker guides the object into place saving themselves time and a lot of energy.

“It’s set up so that the bricklayer has got to handle the block but the robotic arm essentially takes the weight off.”

Co-bots could soon become the largest-selling robots, with prices as low as US$15,000.

The local union has been working to stay at the forefront of robotics in the industry.

“We want to involve ourselves in this,” Higginson said. “That is why our contractors are involved in this in the States. It hasn’t happened here yet, but eventually it will make its way here. We work with our contractors in partnerships.

“We are just in the process of getting a hydro-mobile scaffold at our training centre. This has emerged as one of the most efficient ways of installing brick on a residential highrise. It is very interesting.” The new hydraulic scaffolding is reducing the time and cost of building scaffolding.

“We try to stay abreast of that. It’s what is happening in the field right now. One of our mottos is: Ready-towork training.”

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