- For several years, the construction sector has been facing a labour shortage, generating a growing interest in automation.
- The health crisis has only exacerbated the trend, prompting automation companies to turn their focus from car manufacturing to the construction industry, for which automation is expected to grow up to 30% within the next few years.
- The following explores present capabilities and future possibilities of automation within the construction process, its integration within the mainstream practice and the impact on design.
Facing a shortage of skilled labour, an increasing number of projects, and an imperative to reduce its environmental impact, the construction industry is looking towards automation to increase productivity, cost efficiency and minimise material waste. “Construction is where automotive was about 50 years ago in terms of the density of robots and automation. It’s coming from a lower base, but it is going to grow much faster,” says Sami Atiya, president of Robotics & Discrete Automation at ABB. A McKinsey Global Institute pre-pandemic study covering 54 countries and 78% of the global labour market states that 44% of work within the construction sector has the potential to be automated. However, the prospect is not a fully automated construction site but the use of human labour solely for essential tasks.
Traditional construction process and materials limit the adoption of robotic technology to highly specific tasks. However, digital fabrication, whether it is robotic manipulation or additive manufacturing, holds significant potential for reshaping the construction process altogether, as showcased by the experimental pavilions designed over the years by the Institute for Computational Design (ICD) and the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE), illustrating both material innovation and the possibilities of robotic fabrication.
Automation within the construction process is no longer a preoccupation at the fringes of architecture, as is shown by the collaboration announced last November between Foster + Partners and the robotics design company Boston Dynamics. As part of the Early Adopters program for Spot, the robot has been tested for data collection and progress monitoring on construction sites. Spot’s performance was undeniable, with the robot showing a much higher rate of spotting errors than manual monitoring, thus enhancing productivity and efficiency. The robot is also capable of checking as-built versus as-designed models, with significantly reduced scanning and post-processing times, which would free staff for other tasks. Foster+Partners involvement brought automation on the construction site in the realm of possibility, and it might not take long until Spot’s appearance at a building site “will seem as ordinary as the arrival of a bulldozer or a forklift do today”. The robot has been adopted by several construction companies around the world and employed for various tasks.