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Technology is transforming the construction and project management landscape in more ways than one. An increasing reliance on technology, along with robotics, to tackle the complexities of mega projects, has started pushing companies to explore new and cost-effective solutions.
In fact, robots are now the centre of all futuristic construction technology. A multi-purpose drone, bulldozer automation systems, robots cutting, stacking and packaging materials and welding structural frames, are increasingly becoming a common feature across large, complex construction projects.
Technology can also monitor deliveries, inventory and enhance the efficiency of the overall process. This has led to an increase in the demand for various types of robots, such as collaborative industrial robots, logistics robots, building automation, autonomous drones, additive manufacturing and 3D printing, etc.
Robots also help cope with mundane activities like lifting, shifting, loading, unloading and other kinds of repetitive jobs, thereby, reducing dependence on human intervention and external factors such as fatigue, interest, skills, work timing and human errors. Apart from addressing the issue of productivity, robots also play a key role in challenging work environments, like mines and tunneling, where the work has to be carried out in confined spaces and extreme weather conditions. Human intervention in these areas is impossible.
Challenges, where the use of robotics in construction can help
Project complexity: Construction projects are becoming more demanding and complicated in design. Structural and technical complexity and high levels of dynamism, require re-engineering and the flexibility to adapt to changes during construction, with zero impact to project end-results.
Environmental sustainability: Robots, with their precision, can contribute towards reducing the carbon footprint, by means of reduced usage of fossil fuel, reduced air and noise pollution. They can also contribute to safe work practices and minimise other environmental risks associated with construction.
Time constraint: As projects continue to become increasingly complex, contractors face enormous challenges, vis-à-vis timely delivery. The advent of precast technology and integration of robots with technology, can optimise and expedite project timelines.
As a result of these, the demand for industrial robots has accelerated considerably in the past couple of years. Between 2011 and 2016, the average robot sales grew at 12 per cent per year (CAGR) with the number of industrial robots deployed worldwide estimated to increase to 2.6 million units by 2019. Manufacturers are taking a note of this surge in demand. For example, a New York-based company, Construction Robotics has created a Semi-Autonomous Mason – Sam100, whose margin of error is now measured in millimetres. It can apply mortar to any size brick and place one every 8.5 seconds. Where a human mason can lay 300-600 bricks in an eight-hour shift, Sam100 can lay more than 3,000. A robot, called WALT (by Endless Robotics) can paint walls about 30 times quicker than a human, at a speed of about 60 sq ft per minute and can work at heights from eight ft to 14 ft.
Another disruptive technology is 3D printing. It drastically reduces time overruns and labour cost needed for construction projects. With 3D printing, one can effectively print an entire prefabricated building structure and later assemble the pieces into a complete building, onsite. Companies such as Caterpillar and Cazza, have already introduced products based on this concept.
Manufacturers are now creating robots with a combination of interconnectivity of the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and other intelligent tools like mobile analytics and machines that are equipped with smart technologies. These include solutions such as hyperspectral and multispectral imaging, 3D-embedded visioning and deep learning. Hence, there is greater flexibility in the application of robotics and its use.
Real time updates
The usage of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) is enabling customers and project managers, to view real time progress of their projects from the comfort of their office or homes. The most popular augmented reality wearable in the construction industry is the Microsoft HoloLens. Users can use computer-generated models both, on the site and in the office, to see what the final product will look like, proving the value of AR in construction. By using AR both, the architects and construction firms, can showcase functional models to their clients. Clients can make decisions, based on the current plan and make changes before construction starts.
The strong Indian story
With initiatives like ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’, India can leapfrog towards advanced robotics and compete with the world’s best. In 2015, the Make in India initiative garnered investments of over USD 13 billion in robotics. Globally, the use of robots is growing at the rate of 6.73 per cent per annum, while the growth in India has been around 12 per cent. Research estimates that India could become a USD 25.8 billion market for emerging technologies, by 2020.
While the adoption of technology in some sectors like automobile, manufacturing, etc., has been rapid, construction has lagged behind. Emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Russia, are likely to account for more than half of all global growth. It is estimated that, by 2020, emerging economies will account for 55 per cent of global construction, compared to 46 per cent in 2010. In these emerging economies, expanding populations and growing economic activity are driving higher growth in construction.
The Indian construction industry, valued at USD 126 billion and employing around 40 million people, accounts for approximately eight per cent of the country’s GDP. With the Indian government’s target of investing about USD 377 billion in infrastructure by 2019, the usage of robotics in construction is expected to witness high growth.
The day is not far, when robots working on project sites will become a common occurrence. Drones, which are already in use to an extent, will constantly scan sites to collect data, predict and solve problems before they arise. Humans will be able to remotely oversee multiple projects at once. The industry will become increasingly focused on innovation and construction will become faster.
With the tremendous progress that this field has demonstrated in the past couple of years, it will not be wrong to assume that the future of the construction industry will be dominated by robotics. We are closer to witnessing technology becoming an everyday affair, earlier than imagined.
(The writer is national director – industrial life sciences sector, Project & Development Services, JLL India)