Construction ‘moving into the era of the robots,’ says industry leader

The construction industry is “moving into the era of the robots,” says Alison Carnwath, chair of Land Securities, the UK’s largest commercial property development and investment company.

Carnworth told the Institute of Directors’ annual convention on Tuesday at London’s Albert Hall she was surprised at the speed with which technology is changing the construction industry.

She said only a few years ago she would have given a wry smile to hearing mention of robots putting up buildings in London. But now, she believes “we’re not that far off,” and the implications will be huge.

construction industry London buildingsWe may soon see robots putting up buildings in London. Image: pixabay

These words echo those of Kai-Uwe Bergmann, a New York based partner in BIG, a group of architects, designers, and builders who are currently completing many projects worldwide.

Speaking at the World Architecture Festival in Singapore in November last year, Bergmann said architecture was about to experience a “maker revolution” that could see robots transform the construction industry.

Bergmann says the Swiss are looking at using robots instead of masons to place the mortar and stone in the right places.

Members of his firm have visited Switzerland to look at the work of architects like Gramazio and Kohler, who have been experimenting with robots for the last 10 years.

Construction drones and 3D printing

About 4 years ago, Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, with another colleague from ETH Zurich, Raffaello D’Andrea, showed how drones could construct walls from polystyrene blocks. The following video, taken by a colleague of theirs, shows a demonstration of this.

More recently, at the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2015, Gramazio and Kohler showed how a robot could build a structure from rocks and string.

They describe the exhibit as a “full scale 3D ‘rock printing process’ that uses the self-aggregating capacities of the material itself.”

Another example of 3D printing revolutionizing construction hit the headlines earlier this year as Dubai revealed how its 250-square-meter Future Foundation office on the site of Emirates Towers was fabricated in 17 days with 3D printing technology.

Video – 3D Printing

Productivity boost welcome, but what about the workers?

A recent report from the World Economic Forum on the future of construction says emerging digital technologies are set to transform the industry in many ways – from 3D models for guidance, robots for the dangerous work, to drones and embedded sensors.

The idea is these will not only boost productivity but also improve on-site safety and environmental performance.

The boost to productivity is welcome because it helps increase wages and prosperity, say politicians.

But the construction industry is also a big employer, and, depending on the speed with which it displaces people with robots, there could be a lot of ex-construction workers struggling to find employment elsewhere. It could be a while before they enjoy the promised prosperity.

Carnworth warned about this as she explained businesses are focusing on productivity and to do that they need to re-engineer how their people work. In so doing, she adds, “they recognize that technology is upon us and is going to destroy thousands of jobs.”

Video – Robots in Construction

The following video from the Chartered Institute of Building and ITN, gives examples from Skanska UK of the changes happening in Britain’s construction industry due to the introduction of robotics and what challenges they may present.