A growing range of automation and modern methods of construction (MMC) technologies are queuing up to replace human jobs and skills in a robotic revolution of UK building and construction. As Jon Herbert reports, some are already here.
City of London skyscrapers could soon be built by robots rather than people, according to Alison Carnwath, Chairman of Land Securities, a £8.2 billion FTSE 100 construction company.
Speaking to the Institute of Directors in September 2016, she admitted that the pace of technological change had taken her by surprise.
She commented, “Five years ago, I’d have smiled wryly if someone had said to me that robots would be able to put up buildings in the City of London — I tell you, we’re not far off and that has many implications.”
Some of the machines of tomorrow are already here today, which shows how the industry might be transformed.
For example, what will be the impact of a robot that can lay bricks three times faster than human bricklayers? Putting time-served bricklayers out of work might be one answer.
The counter view is that smart machines could help to redress chronic skill and labour shortages that are holding back urgently needed UK homebuilding programmes.
Eyes are also turning towards the economic and practical potential of non-human workers as a remedy for difficulties in recruiting European construction workers to a non-EU UK.
Robotic bricklayers now exist and are being commercialised. Instead of destroying jobs, they are more likely to take the drudgery out of site work, leaving humans free to tackle the difficult and convoluted creative bits that robotic, sensors and mechanical arms can’t cope with — yet.
However, the ramifications go deeper. Robotic bricklayers are the tip of the iceberg in a construction manufacturing revolution taking shape not only on-site, but also in new off-site component factories. They promise to bring the labour-strapped building industry a long list of additional benefits.
Humans versus robots
Reduced construction costs and faster construction speeds are obvious bonuses in the right circumstances. Lower financial costs because of the shorter time taken to bring products to market are another. In tandem, insurance costs tend to be much smaller.
Robots and robotic production lines take no leave, ask no favours and, maintenance and task designation aside, work consistently without interruption. Both safety and productivity are big winners.
In the case of bricklaying, old fashioned mortar — which has always served as a levelling agent — may go out of the window too. With the accuracy of robotic bricklayers, a bed of construction adhesive or foam just 1mm thick might be all that is needed. This improves acoustic and thermal efficiency by some 70%, according to Fastbrick Robotics in Australia which has developed such a system.
Controlled by a computer-aided design (CAD) of the intended house structure, the company’s truck-mounted Hadrian X robot can load, cut, rout and lay bricks automatically course-by-course at a rate of some 1000 an hour to an accuracy of 0.5mm.
Hadrian X can build a house in two days rather than the eight days taken by human hands.
The semi-automated mason (SAM) operates in a similar role. It is developed by Construction Robotics, SAM is seen as a human-robot joint team member in which the robot carries out mundane work, such as moving bricks, applying mortar and placing them. Humans meanwhile set up the work site, lay fiddly corners, manage aesthetic details and clean up excess mortar.
Once again, the robot is pinpoint accurate but adaptable. Working in winds on gently swaying scaffolding, it can make compensating corrections. The system is also designed to cope with differences between theoretical plans and what it actually finds on a working site. Windows and doors are not always exactly where they ought to be. SAM can work round this.
SAM currently operates best on large flat walls in buildings such as universities or hospitals. Yet, it can also “bump” bricks into out by half an inch to create a textured effect.
What drives SAM, and other robots, is a set of mathematical algorithms working with sensors that make constant adjustments for gradients, angles and speeds helped by a laser reference line set up across the workspace. On a good day, SAM can lay up to 1200 bricks.
Skills shortage problems
The Financial Times has reported that a skills shortage is forcing London’s largest building constructors to turn down 50% of the capital’s building opportunities. According to a survey by the infrastructure and support services group, Aecom, labour shortages are not only driving up costs to clients but also making many contractors risk-averse. In 2015, London concrete, bricklaying, joinery and other specialist skill costs rose by 10%.
The Construction Products Association says some contractors have even gone back to clients to re-negotiate agreed costs.
It is estimated that 324,000 employees left the building trade during the financial crisis and have not returned. Their absence has been partially offset by European workers. It is calculated that some 12% of the UK’s 2.3 million construction workers come from overseas.
Early in 2016, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) reported that labour shortages pushed up 2015 wages — and costs — by an average of 6% compared to the UK average of 2%. RICS warns that without solutions, key housing and infrastructure programmes could face crippling delays and spiralling costs. The Office for National Statistics reports that average construction industry pay packets are £620 a week — more than the UK average of £505.
The Construction Industry Training Board forecast that between 2015 and 2019, 224,000 new construction workers will be needed. Enter automation and robots.
Former Arcadis Development Director Mark Farmer was asked by the UK Government through the new Construction Leadership Council to lead a review of UK construction labour force skills. In a co-authored report, he concluded that productivity, unlike in other industries, has scarcely increased in 20 years.
The reason, he found, was that while other sectors had invested in labour-saving technology, construction still depends on people power. The report included the estimation that a million extra hands are needed to cope with retirements, sector growth and the need to build 250,000 new UK homes because the pool of unemployed workers is nearly exhausted at 3.4%.
Japan has already faced up to these problems. With an ageing population, it has responded to severe labour shortages by investing heavily in MMC and robotics. The Japanese Government recently launched a five-year push to increase the use of intelligent machines in manufacturing, supply chains and construction.
The same trend could be emerging in the UK.
Laing O’Rourke is working on plans for an advanced manufacturing factory for commercial projects. Skanska is also looking at the flying factories concept, temporary facilities manufacturing prefabricated components that operate for the duration of a project.
Continuing the MMC theme, in Scotland Construction Clients’ Group (CCG) has created a permanent 130,000 ft2 facility able to manufacture 2000 buildings annually.
One MMC advantage is the option to draw on labour pools outside the traditional building industry. As a result, the manufacture of say, cladding panels, can go to the labour rather than labour having to move to temporary construction sites.
More traditionally-minded housebuilders are more restrained in their enthusiasm, however, preferring to see all problems ironed out first. The Home Builders Federation has commented that it is important to “get to the point where it’s 100% right”.
There is also a time lag. Projects today were probably designed four or five years ago based on existing methods. Traditional methods of homebuilding are more easily “turned on and off” with market cycles. Factories need to be kept in production.
Even so, Japanese factories are turning out 150,000 new homes every year. Well-known consumer names such as Panasonic and Toyota also make housing components. Sekisui is a housing specialist with some 150 robots dedicated to the building industry.
Although Japanese mortgages can last for a century, families typically re-build on their plot every 30 or 40 years. Customised home designs are sold from the showroom, delivered and occupied often in just six weeks.
China is also embracing automation and producing advanced prefabricated components. To make the point, China’s Broad Group assembled a 57-storey tower in Shanghai in 15 days from ground zero.
How far can this go?
The ascent of technology is also altering the landscape for architects and designers. 3D printing is a disruptive technology that is beginning to allow large-scale complex curved, contoured and aesthetic shapes to be made in the factory or on-site.
Small robots working synchronously can also help to construct challenging forms that were almost impossible before while being controlled remotely. This potential has not escaped RoboticsX which is working on the development of autonomous robotics that will enable buildings and structures to be constructed on Mars in changing environments without constant supervision from earth.
Another role for automation and robotics in buildings is in the occupancy and operational stage. One approach foresees building enclosure designs that work like a “skin”, adjusting light and shading, controlling air flows and vents to regulate humidity levels and temperatures.
The watchword here is “biomimicry” whereby a dynamic system of sensors, actuators and moving parts are governed by a central building automation system. Even more complex systems include actively-controlled building facades that optimise solar energy, facilitate cooling and introduce unusual terminologies such as “breathable buildings”, “solar chimneys” and “heat sinks”. However, the economics are presently challenging.
Looking further ahead, biology may replace biomimicry, with glass microalgae panels acting as biomass and light manipulating systems.
Meanwhile, the race is on to deliver a massive-scale 3D printing technology that can create huge structures refined on a minute level. One target is to print an entire house in three weeks and snap it together in a day.
What appears to be amazing today will undoubtedly be old hat in the not too distant future.
Published by Croner-i on 15 November 2016