‘On-Site Factories’: The Companies Bringing Assembly Line Production to the Construction Site
The car industry was revolutionised when it introduced, and then automated, the assembly line. Productivity and quality gains allowed mass production of affordable, high quality motor vehicles, making car ownership not just a privilege reserved for the rich.
The construction industry might seem lightyears away from replicating the success that the car manufacturing industry has achieved - producing complex, engineered products efficiently to a high quality standard using automated assembly lines.
Prefabrication, whilst a useful tool to overcome many project constraints, never truly took off. Anyone would have reasonably thought it had the potential to become the dominant construction methodology. But the prefabricated building market represents only 3% of the AUD 150 billion Australian construction industry.
The reasons are multifactorial, but the reality is that it’s just not beneficial or convenient enough to displace the insitu market which has deep-rooted infrastructure and labour processes.
So, how can the construction industry achieve the quality and productivity benefits of an automated assembly line but maintain the convenience of building in situ?
Many companies are now innovating in ways that skip off-site prefabrication altogether by essentially bringing automated, factory-like production onto the construction site to get the benefits of both.
These pioneering companies are creating what may be a new era of construction: on-site factories. When you see what these companies are up to, it may be a not-too-distant reality that we see job sites dominated by artificially-intelligent robots roaming around completing tasks that humans once did.
TyBot is an autonomous steel-tying robot invented by Pittsburgh-based Advanced Construction Robotics (ACR).
Using computer vision, TyBot can see the intersection of bars and autonomously install 1,000 ties an hour - about the same as 6-8 workers.
It’s mounted on a steel truss spanning across the slab, which is set on two tracks either side of the work area, allowing it to move along the worksite.
The machine is available for lease or will set you back around $800,000 US to buy. The company says it will pay for itself in just one year.
The company is also working on a second robot called IronBot which will place the steel before TyBot fixes it. Together they will improve productivity by 400%, according to ACR.
Based in Boston, Apis Cor is a 3D-printing company responsible for the biggest 3D-printed building, a 2-story administration building for Dubai Municipality.
With a footprint of 650 square metres, it was completed in just two weeks.
The swivelling robotic arm autonomously tracks the walls of the building secreting a specialised 3D-printing compound - which can be either a Portland cement-based or gypsum-based product.
Apis Cor is part of a growing number of 3D printing companies in a space race to make 3D-printing commercially viable including ICON (USA), XtreeE (France), WASP (Italy), CyBe Construction (Netherlands) and Winsun (China).
It is estimated that 3D-printed houses could be constructed at a rate of one per day, shaving construction costs by about 30% and improving access to affordable housing.
SAM, short for semi-automated mason, is the invention of New York company, Construction Robotics, and is a brick-laying robot mounted on a moving trolley.
SAM muds the brick and places it autonomously on the wall, while progressively moving along the wall whilst bricks and mortar are manually fed into the machine.
It uses lasers to correct for dynamic movement, such as wind, as it lays the brick to ensure accurate placement.
SAM costs 500,000 US dollars but is claimed to be 3-5 times faster than an average brickie, laying 3,000 bricks a day. It also reduces 80% of lifting, making it both a productivity and safety tool.
The company says that SAM and their other invention, a brick lifting assistance device called MULE, have completed almost 100,000 square metres of wall.
Okibo is a robotics company based in Israel which has developed an autonomous wall plastering, rendering and painting robot.
It’s robotic arm moves up and down on a vertical track to cover the full height of the wall. The track sits on a wheeled platform allowing it to progressively move along the walls as it plasters or paints.
It uses AI, 3D scanners, geo-positioning, and motion sensors to capture the site layout, plan its work, navigate around and plaster, render or paint the wall so it doesn’t require any pre-existing knowledge of the site.
The device can autonomously pick up plaster and even change tools on its own.
Unlike human workers, Okibo’s robot can operate 24 hours a day without a lunch break.
Okibo has recently become commercially available for purchase after on-site site testing as a subbie.
Built Robotics have developed fully-autonomous, self-driving heavy machinery. The software is powered by artificial intelligence, using cameras, LiDAR and GPS to guide heavy machinery to perform tasks autonomously around site.
For example, you can instruct an excavator to dig a trench between two coordinates and set a geofence preventing it from operating outside a specified area. It will then determine the best method of achieving the task and complete it autonomously.
Machinery can also be operated and monitored by a pilot in an off-site location.
The software recently became commercially available in Australia and can be retrofitted on any equipment from any manufacturer in just a couple of days, substantially lowering the barriers to adoption for civil contractors.
Social Construct is developing artificially intelligent tools to optimise and automate the design of buildings whilst maintaining the flexibility of being able to make changes to suit actual site dimensions.
A large problem with prefabrication is that actual site dimensions can change as the build progresses. Social Construct solves this by allowing the shell of the building to be constructed as normal then measuring the on site dimensions so that the computer can design for that exact space.
The automated software then designs optimised floor layouts, the most-efficient locations of services and modular building assemblies that are small enough to be carried by at most two people and click into place on site to match the exact sizing needs.
The team says it can save construction time and cost by 20-30%.
Apellix makes drones that can complete work tasks. They currently have drones that can undertake coating and steel thickness testing but have spray-painting and cleaning drones under development.
The company says their drones provide better quality control than a human by applying a more precise thickness of paint to reduce paint overspray.
Apellix’s drones provide a huge advantage for maintaining and building structures by eliminating the need to erect costly scaffolding and put workers in high-risk areas.
Volvo has developed a self-driving, battery-electric dumper called the HX2. It is a fully autonomous hauling and dumping truck with a 15-tonne load capacity, 4 wheel steering and bidirectional driving capabilities.
It is intended for mining applications, but the dumper has computer vision that can detect humans and obstacles in its vicinity, making it suitable for use on construction sites.
The electric battery can also recuperate energy when travelling down slopes or braking. Volvo says that it estimates the dumper will reduce emissions by 95% and total cost of ownership by 25%.
As for site inspections, even robots are being trained to do that, which could mean continuous quality monitoring on site.
Doxel has developed a robot that autonomously roams the job site monitoring progress and inspecting for anomalies in the build. It can automatically track progress and report this back to the office.
These artificially intelligent robots use LiDAR to map their surroundings and cleverly recognise objects.
They can compare progress against the design and pick up construction flaws or omissions which can often go unnoticed by the human eye. These clever machines can process the information and send it straight to the office in a matter of minutes.
Not only does this provide a valuable quality assurance tool to avoid construction errors but creates a constant feedback loop for more effective scheduling and resource allocation.
KEWAZO is a German technology company that has developed a smart, battery-powered, robotic scaffolding hoist called LIFTBOT. The hoist eliminates the manual labour involved in hauling scaffolding up building floors, thereby allowing just two workers to build a multi-storey scaffold.
The hoist is installed onto the side of the scaffold in 20 minutes and has 10 hours battery life. The company says the hoist saves companies 44% of labour costs.
It even has a real-time data analytics dashboard to monitor progress and speed.
Perth-based, Fastbrick Robotics and their Hadrian X bricklaying truck can build the structural walls of an average house in just two days. The Hadrian X uses specialty adhesive sets faster and is stronger than typical mortar which allows for quicker erection of walls.
Fastbrick Robotics provides the service of wall construction, rather than selling the machine itself, in what they are calling “Wall-as-a-Service”.
The truck-mounted robot stacks the bricks, applies a specialty adhesive and lays the bricks on site using its mechanical arm for reach.
The technology has recently become a commercial reality, after successfully delivering a house in Perth which is now tenanted.
With the advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence, construction is entering a new era bringing factory-type assembly lines and automated production onto site.
This provides the best of both worlds; the quality, speed and ‘economies of scale’ of prefabrication combined with the ease and convenience of insitu. What’s missing is the convergence of these technologies.
If these technologies could be integrated to give them an ability to ‘talk’ to one another, there could be the potential for a hugely different construction site - one dominated by automated machines, robots and assembly lines, rather than workers.
Could on-site factories be the logical next step for construction?
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