1 topic, 2 key figures, 3 startups to draw inspiration from
The slow adoption of robotics in Construction
Back in 1987, Japanese academics, robot manufacturers and contractors were already working on the first documented research about automated construction processes. Since then, construction robotics never stopped improving. ‘Robotics’ refers to the use of machines that have an automated component: construction robots are designed to help and assist humans in their day-to-day work on construction sites. The most common construction robots are stand-alone, fixed machines used for repetitive and precise applications (e.g. articulated arms). Then, there are collaborative robots (or cobots) that directly interact with human workers and perform a specific task – such as lifting heavy loads. A third type of robots are exoskeletons which are connected to the human body to support them in difficult tasks (e.g. for heavy-duty). Finally, the autonomous guided vehicles and autonomous mobile robots can navigate either onboard (e.g. camera or laser based) or in external environments (e.g. drones).
A good example of cobot is SAM (Semi-Automated Mason), the bricklaying robot designed by Construction Robotics. SAM works alongside the mason and assists him/her with the repetitive and arduous lifting and placing of bricks. The mason remains in charge of the setup and responsible for final quality. SAMs can lay 250 to 300 bricks per hour, improving by up to 4 times the number of bricks than a man could lay when working alone. With a retail price of $500,000, the firm that SAMs users can expect an ROI within three years, thanks to a reduction of labor costs by at least 30%, low maintenance costs and an expected lifespan of about 10 years.
Construction Robotics are not the only ones coming with an attractive value proposition for construction firms. Robotics companies and start-ups put forward financial benefits, productivity gain and safety as the main commercial arguments. Indeed, labor costs usually represent between 20% and 50% of a construction project total cost – and 38% of it could be automated according to a McKinsey study, leading to a potential cost saving of 20%. Although the initial investment is high, robotics firms claim that in the long-term, it is more cost-effective to purchase robots: in the United States, the average robot cost (including maintenance) is 4 times lower than labor wage stated McKinsey. Moreover, robotics is a guarantee of accuracy. Its work is extremely precise and predictable, thus meeting deadlines and avoiding delay expenses is easier. Another advantage of robotics is the minimization of injuries and providing a safer workplace. For instance, autonomous vehicles can operate independently in hazardous areas.
However, robotics in construction is still not widely adopted and there is under-automated when compared to other manufacturing industries. The construction industry has been classified by McKinsey as « in middle range for automation ». There are several reasons for slow adoption rate of robotics in this industry:
- The complexity of construction sites – unique end-product, unpredictable weather – leads to non-repetitive tasks and involving judgement
- The unpredictable and ever-changing environment: the flexibility required for construction works is for still difficult to automate. As previously said, only 38% of the time spent on unpredictable physical work in construction could be automated with current technologies compared to a 70% for predictable physical work (e.g. in automotive).
- The need for technology to improve: although there are plenty of promising innovations, improvements of the current technology are needed in the adaptability to real-time variability. Moreover, on construction sites there are hundreds of tasks and multiple phases. As there is no multitask-programmed robot, many construction firms remain reluctant to integrate robots to their regular activities.
- The significant investment costs: Investing in robotics involves high initial capital investment, including R&D. Although in the long term it is said to be beneficial, it remains an obstacle for many companies.
- Legal and safety issues: even though robots should reduce the risks on construction sites, the appropriate allocation of risk is a concern for all the construction participants. There is a need specific regulation in the use of robotics on sites. This issue is starting to be addressed (e.g. the compulsory use of Building Information Models in UK since 2019). The cyber risk also needs to be considered.
- Jobs implications: If 40% of current construction jobs would be “at high risk” of automation by the 2030s, according to a 2018 PwC study, the transition will take some time and the major challenge for workers will be to not be replaced by robots but to learn to work side by side with them. A specificity of the construction industry is the importance of craftsmanship, that adds value to projects. Replacing all human workers by robots would mean taking away the quality-assessment aspect that current robots cannot provide. Thus, collaborative robots may be the most appropriate solution as they are designed to work alongside human counterparts instead of entirely replacing them. Cobots will contribute to improve productivity by carrying out tasks that would otherwise be considered busywork or for employees.
The current labor-shortage in construction – A 2019 survey by Associated General Contractors of America and AutoDesk reported that 80% of firms find it difficult to hire labor force – will surely weight into the scale of construction robotics rise. Thanks to 5G and other technology improvements, better connectivity will make it easier for multiple robots to co-operate and better understand the environment they are operating in. Compared to other heavy industries, job automation in construction is rather low but it is poised to increase faster than them in the coming decades. According to a PwC study, in the late 2020s, job automation potential in construction is 16% versus 19% on average for all industry sectors but the automation potential for construction in the mid-2030s is forecast to be 39% versus 30% for all sectors.
2 Key Figures
77 construction robotics startups
in the world, according to a Tracxn query.
Market size expected to reach $460M by 2026
According to Verified Market Research, the global Construction Robotics market size was valued at $212 Million in 2019 and is expected to reach $460 Million by 2026.
3 startups to draw inspiration from
This week, we identified three startups that we can draw inspiration from: Construction Robotics, Kewazo and SuitX.
New-York based company, Construction Robotics is dedicated to developing affordable, leading-edge robotics and automation equipment for the construction industry.
Based in Munich, Kewazo develops smart robotic elevators for industrial and construction sites with focus on scaffolding. Kewazo solutions intend to improve construction logistics via data analysis and robotics.
The US-based startup SuitX builds a robotic exoskeleton for medical and industrial markets, designed to reduce the amount of strain on the knees and quadriceps.