Construction is going through a huge shift at the moment, as digital innovation in the sector is driving its direction more and more. Robotics is one of the areas of particular interest, as it enables construction companies to implement lean practices, increase efficiency, and reduce waste as they build.
How robotics plays a role in construction
One of the now most prominent examples of robotisation in the construction industry are Robotics Total Stations (RTS) — a semi-autonomous measurement tool that surveyors can use to coordinate distance, measure angles and process data. When the tool has been set up, it can put out a warning when measurement thresholds are met and alleviate the need for a two-person team to gather data. This tool, first introduced by Geodimeter in the early 1990s, is just one example of how robotics has revolutionised the age-old construction industry.
Other more recent examples of highly successful integrations of robotics in construction include the deployment of quadruped robots, like Boston Dynamics’ ‘Spot, the robot, and the use of pre-programmed robotic layout solutions. From being worth $2,450.7m in 2019, the construction robotics market is estimated to grow to $7,880.3m by 2027.
As robotics become increasingly prevalent in this sector a shift is required, moving construction away from being a trade skills-based industry and towards one where a combination of trade and technical skills are needed.
>See also: Robotic Process Automation and Digital Process Automation: Friend or foe?
The need for skill proficiency
As construction robotics becomes more widely used, workers are needed who can manage high-level technical activities and understand the limitations of robotic tools.
The skills increasingly required of construction workers will be the operation and maintenance of robots and the capability to optimise work processes, acknowledging the robot systems’ capabilities and limitations, and identifying any discrepancies that could affect safety and performance. Some workers will also need to be familiar with Building Information Modelling (BIM) solutions and datasets that are used to guide the robots and provide situational intelligence. Most importantly, workers will need to be flexible and able to adapt their roles to new technologies.
Developing and training employees
Upskilling employees to work with construction robots is not necessarily an arduous task, as not all robots are complex. It can start with instruction in the basic robot-operational skills, such as teaching robots to start and stop, and being able to charge and guide them. From there, employees can learn to maintain the robots, and to map and optimise their work taking into consideration site conditions, production rate, operating time and load sizing, before moving on to the more complex aspects of construction robotics.
Once one worker has safely built their skills, they can pass these skills onto the rest of the team, keeping training costs to a minimum. Upon arrival at a site, the most intuitive skills can be taught immediately through demonstration and, with more long-term training requirements, employers can help new and existing employees operate robotics systems safely and adeptly, by implementing in-house training programmes and self-study options.
External training and certification are required for operating some construction machinery and a similar requirement will be required to operate some advanced robotic machines. Employers will be able to leverage AI-based simulation tools to develop competences in high-fidelity scenarios. For instance, when more complicated robotics tools, such as autonomous compactors, excavators and dozers enter the market, certification may be required and simulation training can help employees become used to operating this kind of machinery.
Simulation tools are an exceptionally versatile training method and can be used to teach workers a vast range of skills from robotics in bricklaying to 3D printing and surveillance. In a simulated environment, workers can test cognition, localisation, perception and sensor combinations in real-world scenarios. As employees become increasingly competent with the tools, the simulation systems can be adjusted to replicate conditions that are more hazardous and difficult to navigate. With this approach, workers can safely and efficiently gain experience in steering through complex and dangerous scenarios such as weather conditions, co-ordinating mixed and complex robot fleets, and planning and optimising site conditions.
Adapting with the industry
Construction robotics is a field that’s innovating and evolving fast. Upskilling employees enables construction companies to develop a more competent workforce that is at the forefront of the industry and encourages organisations to remain resilient to change, adapting to new industry developments so the company can grow alongside the sector as a whole. Moreover, companies can use the construction industry’s technological transformation to their advantage to attract the top tech talent required for a digital future.
As the world shifts towards the digital, the construction sector remains no exception. For construction companies today, the only option is to start looking at digital transformation and upskilling options now or risk getting left in the dusk.
Aviad Almagor is vice-president, technology innovation at industrial technology company Trimble.
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