Robotics: What role will they play on your project?

October 20, 2014

When used smartly, robotics are the ultimate automation tool on the job site — and for every design team to consider.

One and a half years ago, I had the great good fortune to visit and tour the Hyundai Auto Production Plant in Asan, Korea. The visit was sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I appreciated that the tour was very thorough. At that time the product was the Sonata and they were completing one car per minute. The deeply impressive fact was that each car was different. They had different interiors, different colors, different power plants, etc. That diversity was possible, in part, due to the extensive use of robotics throughout the plant. Robots literally took the steel from the rolling mills, and formed it into doors, car bodies, etc. The most complex component in the car, the power plant, was imported as an assembled unit. Those power-plants varied from a simple 4 cylinder, automatic, to a hybrid power plant—and each found its way into the correct car during the production process.
The plant also had a very sophisticated painting operation, including robotically managed QA/QC for paint quality. The plant was a very high bay plant and they had a number of “lights out” operations in the upper areas.

I left that tour deeply impressed by the Korean Manufacturing prowess, and deeply concerned at how far behind the construction industry was in the use of robots for any application. Car manufacturers have a very singular product focus and that provides the opportunity to continually improve the manufacturing steps and the resultant product. Construction is typically a one-off process. Each building is different and each client or user has very different needs for their business. I was envious of Hyundai as they were on a very aggressive learning curve and were taking maximum advantage of that every day. You can get some sense of this commitment to automation at;

The Use of Robotics in Construction in 2014- We Are Catching Up!

In 2014, construction is catching up. Robots are finding their way into the construction process and it is becoming acceptable for a robot and craftsman to work side-by-side, without concern for the craftsman’s well-being. That team has the capability of being more productive and producing a consistently better product.
There has been a wealth of material produced in 2014 that addresses construction-based use of robots with well researched stories. This post will discuss some of the current research, specifically of robots in construction. The critical point is- all of these articles, books and posts are from 2014—this year. We are at the beginning of a period of rapid introduction of Robots to the job site- and to the construction process. By all measures it looks like a good fit.
One caveat—there are a number of questions that have not been addressed in contemporary research which include:

1- How will robotic output be assessed or accepted by the Construction Administration (CA) team—either Architects and/or Engineers.
2- How will local municipalities and building departments accept the use of robotics?
3- Can the site operate 24/7 using robotics? How will that impact the neighborhood or community?
4- How will the risk of the use of Robots be managed on-site? What are the Insurance products?
5- How will the work force accept robots on site?
6- What are the site training requirements and issues?

The Research Continues to Expand and Grow in Depth

The initial article to read provides a good overview of robotic uses and was produced by Building Design and Construction.This is a well-respected publication that has introduced many construction breakthroughs over the past 30 plus years. This is a good read, part of a series of five and certainly a great starting point.

Engineering News Record also produced an article on the same topic in March of this year. That information is only available to subscribers so I am not including the text within this posting. It should be available in most libraries.

On September 17, 2014, the Wall Street Journal published an article, “Collaborative Machines”. That article describes the integration of robotics into a small machine shop and how the robots work side by side with the machinists. You can read that article at:

Dangerous and repetitive labor tasks are prime targets for automation and robotics and there is a unique convergence between the specific needs of complicated (and dangerous site tasks) that are yielding unique robotic applications. Kawasaki has developed a line of site equipment that can be used for these repetitive site tasks as shown in the following article. There are also several videos. We all strive to have completely safe job sites, and Kawasaki is providing us a good start. Interestingly, many of their systems are also being used by disaste- response teams which underscores the safety issue.

There are also some very interesting start-up companies that are addressing different parts of the construction process. As we lose craftspeople in important craft areas, the robots offer us the opportunity to continue to build with traditional materials. In this instance it is masonry. This firm has garnered significant attention in the media this year.

Also, the 3D printer is finding its way into construction. Last week, the New York Times ran a front page story on a Chinese company that “printed” ten homes. The equipment they used is also available in the US, and new applications are emerging each day. In the following “Tech Brief” the large scale 3D printers are shown in operation. Given the simplicity of this process, it may become a product of choice for utility buildings with special design needs, or specialty storage. The primary use noted in the tech brief is the creation of homes in areas with special needs. The extraordinary thing is that 3D printers are relatively new tools, and the speed of their evolution and adaption into useful production is a reflection of the speed new technology is evolving and impacting our lives

Perhaps the most interesting article of all was in Harvard Review, where the study of termite construction of their “hills” in Africa led to some very fascinating conclusions on using self-organizing robots to build 3 dimensional structures. That article is found at;

One of the fascinating conclusions is that a “foreman” or “site manager” is not essential in this structured community. The individual robots are quite able to adapt to their role, and that yields a very productive work environment. This is very cutting edge research, but holds fascinating promise in large scale field operations such as sandbagging for flood protection- as the article mentions. This is well worth the read, as well as the referenced publications that include the research.

As the Market Grow, So Do the Learned Journals

There are a number of journals that are addressing robotics in construction, and of the several I reviewed are worth further discussion. Some are pricey, some are free. The overwhelming amount of research data that is available make these publications a priority for me. There are also many public domain sources. The Journals that are worth reviewing include;

Google- International Autonomous Robots -There is a wide range or articles that are very much in depth on the use of robots – even racing competitions.

This document is pricy—but complete

We are also seeing the introduction of books that address the application of robots in construction. One book that I found to be Interesting is;

What is unique about this book is that it is open access. You can purchase a hard bound copy, but you can also download- at no cost- chapters of interest. This is much more in keeping with the “sharing economy” that seems to characterize the generation of users and developers of the technological change we see emerging in our industry today. Perhaps that accounts, in part, for the rapid development and deployment of these new applications

Robotics in Development, Design and Construction-the Takeaway

The basic focus of this web site is the exceptional change that is underway within the Development, Design and Construction industries. The area of robotics has been a surprise; for the wide range of the areas being addressed; for the sophisticated programming of the robots; and for the number of Journals, Research papers, and interest groups that are contributing to a growing body of information on the application of robotics to the project site.
What is equally interesting is the potential for new design applications given the assortment of new tools available – such as the building sized 3D printers noted above. The applications for all of these new tools will continue to grow, and I will continue to update in future postings as the applications of robotics in the development industry continue to grow and be perfected.


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1 Comment

  • Reply Ken Baumgartner October 28, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    As they say, life immitates art, or rather it is interesting to see those technological advances that were once part of science fiction, becoming reality. I remember the science fiction movies where the construction and repair work is being carried out by robots, and can see a real use for it in the future as the skilled labor force continues to diminish all the while labor rates continue to rise. Heck, if we could just get robotics into picking up construction debris, I would be tickled. In actuallity, I think it is all the ripple effects that something like this can bring. Being able to work in harsher environments with out the costly temporary heating and weather control, being able to work 24/7 and theoretically completing projects in 25% of their current schedule. (that isnt even counting working more efficiently and with less errors). Superintendents would be at a monitor station watching that the units are functioning properly, and making adjustments in programing to deal with issues. I really thing the evolotion of 3d printing will be the piece that can really have an effect. being able to just bring a raw material to the site and then create an exact piece of work from a model and install it is fasinating.

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