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May 2, 2019

Robots have an increasingly important role in construction



As blogged on, imagine if the entire population of Oakland, Calif., suddenly needed a new place to live. You’d have to find a way to build housing and infrastructure for nearly half a million people.

As dramatic as this scenario might seem, something comparable is happening daily. According to the United Nations, 400,000 new people enter the middle class every day. To accommodate this growing population, it is estimated that the construction industry will need to build an average of 13,000 buildings every day through 2050.

Building within existing cities is only part of the solution. Population increases in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and India will require construction in resource-limited areas where supply chains are underdeveloped and getting parts and materials to construction sites can be challenging. At the same time, opportunities for expansion of skilled labor force have yet to be fully realized.

To keep up with this ever-growing demand for buildings, and to better manage the challenge of increasingly scarce resources and fluctuations in labor availability, the construction industry needs to rethink the way it builds—and new types of automation, including robotics, have an important role to play.

In the early 20th century, we see manufacturers and distributors like Sears, Roebuck and Company adopting offsite manufacturing and prefabrication techniques to solve many of the same production issues. The company offered customers the Sears Modern Home, a kit house sold and shipped to customers who then assembled it on-site once it arrived. Today, we see companies like Factory OSSkenderBryden WoodCannistraro, and others making headlines for applying contemporary manufacturing principles and practices to current challenges in industrialized construction.

The goal of industrialization, and more specifically automation, in construction has often been to find ways to simplify or streamline a process to increase the amount of construction work that a given number of people can achieve. Examples of robotics for construction emerged in the 1980s among Japanese construction companies facing a shortage of skilled labor in light of an aging population as well as younger workers choosing careers in emerging technology industries rather than construction.

These companies developed new tools, and adopted a range of robotic technologies from manufacturing, for use in construction. The companies created robots and tele-operated devices for a variety of construction tasks, including welding, concrete polishing, material handling, interior and exterior finishing and more. Some of these companies—Obayashi and Shimizu, for example—are still pushing the boundaries of construction-specific robotics.

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