Imagine if the entire population of Oakland, Calif., suddenly needed a new place to live. You’d have to find a way to build housing and infrastructure for nearly half a million people.

As dramatic as this scenario might seem, something comparable is happening daily. According to the United Nations, 400,000 new people enter the middle class every day. To accommodate this growing population, it is estimated that the construction industry will need to build an average of 13,000 buildings every day through 2050.

Building within existing cities is only part of the solution. Population increases in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and India will require construction in resource-limited areas where supply chains are underdeveloped and getting parts and materials to construction sites can be challenging. At the same time, opportunities for expansion of skilled labor force have yet to be fully realized.

To keep up with this ever-growing demand for buildings, and to better manage the challenge of increasingly scarce resources and fluctuations in labor availabiltiy, the construction industry needs to rethink the way it builds—and new types of automation, including robotics, have an important role to play.

Old Concepts, New Technologies

In the early 20th century, we see manufacturers and distributors like Sears, Roebuck and Company adopting offsite manufacturing and prefabrication techniques to solve many of the same production issues. The company offered customers the Sears Modern Home, a kit house sold and shipped to customers who then assembled it on-site once it arrived. Today, we see companies like Factory OS, Skender, Bryden Wood, Cannistraro, and others making headlines for applying contemporary manufacturing principles and practices to current challenges in industrialized construction. 

The goal of industrialization, and more specifically automation, in construction has often been to find ways to simplify or streamline a process to increase the amount of construction work that a given number of people can achieve. Examples of robotics for construction emerged in the 1980s among Japanese construction companies facing a shortage of skilled labor in light of an aging population as well as younger workers choosing careers in emerging technology industries rather than construction. 

These companies developed new tools, and adopted a range of robotic technologies from manufacturing, for use in construction. The companies created robots and tele-operated devices for a variety of construction tasks, including welding, concrete polishing, material handling, interior and exterior finishing and more. Some of these companies—Obayashi and Shimizu, for example—are still pushing the boundaries of construction-specific robotics. 

In recent years, a shortage of skilled labor across high-demand construction markets, the increasing scarcity of resources, a need for enhanced performance, and a confluence of requisite technologies have led to a renewed interest in automation technologies for construction. In many cases, there is nothing particularly flashy or exotic about these “robots”—but they address very common and very real pain points within the construction industry.

Framing is a prime example. Inside any high-rise building, you might have hundreds of thousands of square feet of walls that have interior framing made of light-gauge steel. Typically, this steel is delivered to the construction site and manually cut to length onsite by workers using saws—a lengthy, laborious, and often wasteful process. 

There are now commercially available solutions that can help automate the production of light gauge steel framing, either on-site or off-site. All the parts are precut, predrilled, punched for systems like plumbing and electrical, and labeled—all of which enables faster assembly and installation. In addition to making workers’ lives easier and speeding up production, this technique has been shown to significantly reduce the waste associated with interior framing. 

Another high-impact area in which automation is gaining a lot of traction is the production of mechanical equipment skids. These specialized components often take weeks to construct on site and can include the entire mechanical room. Mechanical construction firm Cannistraro has utilized automation in both design and off-site production to reduce the site install time from six weeks to four hours, for example.

Automating the production of mechanical skids—by building them off-site using partially automated processes—can reduce the amount of complex labor needed at the construction site while enhancing quality. This has the benefit of speeding up construction timelines while reducing the waste and inefficiencies that can occur during on-site assembly of complex systems. 

These process improvements are no small matter. Building construction consumes 40 percent of the world’s raw materials. According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Sustainability Discussion Group (2008) and the U.S. Green Building Council, 25 to 40 percent of total waste comes from building construction. Additionally, some estimate that as much as 30 percent of the total weight of building materials delivered to a building site is wasted. 

Automation technologies are a demonstrated solution to similar challenges in manufacturing sectors and have begun to improve efficiency in construction. This is an early win for all parties: construction companies, workers and the planet itself. 

An Exciting Future

As new technologies are developed or transferred in response to opportunities or problems in construction, they will help the AEC industry to effectively meet the global demand for new buildings over the coming decades, and to do so in a sustainable fashion. 

At Autodesk, we’re thrilled to see the innovation and exploration happening in the construction space, and excited to be a partner for the industry in its ongoing transformation. At the Autodesk Technology Centers, we’ve created unique research and development workshops that provide a venue for architecture, engineering and construction professionals to experiment in a shared, collaborative environment and develop solutions that improve how we build the places where we live and work.

For example, Perkins+Will, a global architecture firm, has been exploring the use of robotics in their core business through a residency at the Autodesk Technology Center, Boston, where the team has developed a proof of concept prototype demonstrating the potential for complex assemblies in mass timber construction that was recently exhibited at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo.

The more that technology companies can collaborate on development and innovation with actual construction teams and end users, the sooner the industry will be able to enjoy the full promise of what construction robotics can offer. 

Robotics are off to a promising start—and many more opportunities lie ahead. This is an exciting time to be in the construction industry.

For more information on recent robotics developments in the construction industry, download the Robotics in Construction e-book.