July 7

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Automation in Construction and Operation

By Robert Salvador

July 7, 2021


Automation is defined as technology concerned with the application of mechanical, electronic and computer-based systems to operate and control production and operation,  Terms like, robotics, CAD/CAM, FMS, Machine Vision are commonplace.  Automation is a dynamic technology that represents a continuous evolutionary process that began many decades ago and technological development that will proceed into the foreseeable future.

The scope of construction automation is widespread and covers virtually the entire construction process, from design to completion. Automation can make a positive impact on serious issues such as shortages of skilled labor, safety, poor weather conditions, and short construction period which nowadays are features of project and impact the quality of the final product,  If automation is practiced, construction work can be much more continuous and consequently the construction period will decrease leading to economic advantages.  

History of Automation in Construction 

While some may think that using automation in construction is a new development, an argument could be made that it goes back thousands of years.

The Terracotta Army, a collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, utilized offsite construction and prefabrication techniques when built in 210 BCE.

The past century has seen increasing efforts at industrializing construction, examples from the first half of the 21st Century such as the Sears Modern Home, a catalog and kit house sold by Sears, Roebuck, and Company through mail order, shipped by railroad boxcar and assembled on-site, to Lustron houses, prefabricated enameled steel houses developed in the post-World War II era United States in response to the shortage of homes for returning GIs.

The late 1970s and 80s was a rapid period of industry-driven development, particularly in Japan. Facing fears of a labor shortage due to an aging population a number of Japanese companies invested in construction automation and robotics to great effect.  They developed robots and remotely-controlled devices used for all sorts of tasks, including material handling, excavation, concrete placement, concrete finishing, rebar placement, fireproofing, structural steel, interior and exterior finishing, earthworks, as well as integrated construction automation systems and prefabricated homes.

Many of these technologies did not end up widely adopted, but they did lead to techniques from manufacturing being applied into practical construction utilization. 

During the next decade Japanese construction firms introduced on-site factories for high-rise construction. Systems such as just in-time delivery of components, automated part tracking and material handling, robotic connection and assembly, and centralized control have all advanced drastically.

In the EU, research was focused on the development of large-size masonry (brick laying, assembly) robots for residential and industrial building construction.  

Pre-Construction and Design

Automation is used heavily in construction design and pre-construction.  There are many automated processes and tasks that happen long before material and the workforce hit the job-site.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility.  BIM can cover spatial relationships, light analysis, geographic information, quantities and the properties of building components including construction manufacturers' specifications.  BIM can also be utilized as a data repository throughout the entire building life cycle  As BIM is a physical representation of a construction site, it helps in developing programs for robotic motions at a construction site.

Prefabrication continues to play a larger role in construction.

  • Robotics in masonry prefabrication such as precast pilings and pre-stressed concrete
  • Automation and robotics in timber construction such as wood i-joists, panels and trusses
  • Robotics in the production of steel components large and small

When it comes to concrete precast component production, a large degree of automation is utilized and necessary. The number of precast components can be produced as per buyer’s demand and timeline. Automation ensures quality is consistent and decreases factory waste.

Automation and robotics have been used to a great extent by steel companies to prefabricate building components according to contractor demand. The steel components will be transferred to the project site for erection. 

Construction

Research in construction robotics and automation for the job site started in the 1980s with the introduction of single-purpose robots which were primarily remotely controlled, 

Machines with high-level capabilities to sense and reason are required for automation of tasks in high variable and unpredictable environments.  Increasingly, machines will have the ability to learn, understand, and deal with new situations.

  • Automation and robotics provide more precise and uniform quality products
  • It can lower costs and increase efficiency and productivity
  • It improves safety for tasks at dangerous locations such as a substantial height location
  • Automated construction and robotics enhance the work environment because workers will be distanced from uncomfortable work positions

 Here are just few uses of the automated tools being used on job sites today:

  • Overhead drilling robot
  • Concrete placer and dragger
  • Concrete compactor and finishing robots 
  • Insulation spray robots
  • Mobile robots for column welding
  • Robots designed to spray fireproofing material onto structural steel frames   
  • Robots  designed for condominium outer balustrade wall finishing work
  • Robotic vehicles for grinding and cleaning on concrete surfaces

Post Construction and Operation

The concept of smart buildings may have grown out of the sustainability movement and a focus on energy efficiency but automated buildings have a widespread value to business.

A smart building is one that generates data about itself and how it’s used. Networked  sensors turn physical workplace action into digital data, which facility managers can use to make accurate insights about the physical workplace. As a simple example, a pressure sensor in the floor of a conference room can show when that room is occupied. This generates data for real-time insights as well as information about how often it’s used, for how long.  This data can help drive decisions related to use of the space.

Smart buildings can operate on a scale , whether it’s just a few sensors that provide targeted facility data or a wide web of devices that paint a complete digital picture of a facility. The purpose of a smart building is to provide digital data about the physical application of a building and everything that happens within it.

Buildings that enable smart technologies can reduce costs by an average of 15% and create an environment that reduces energy waste and stimulates employee productivity.

Here is a look at some of the major smart building benefits.

  • Increased energy efficiency
  • Reduced operating and maintenance costs through predictive maintenance
  • Improved occupant comfort and health – According to a World Green Building Council study, enhancing ventilation and indoor air quality can improve worker productivity by 8-11%, and enhancing lighting conditions can improve productivity by 23%
  • Automation opportunities. The more links there are between the physical workplace and digital management systems, the broader the opportunities for automation
  • Real-time building insights.  Good governance of work spaces relies on data to see new workplace opportunities. In the new age of evolving work styles, flex work and agile workspaces become the new normal.

The key takeaway here is data. Data about previously unquantified systems sheds light on how the physical workplace operates. These insights lead to more meaningful management, both in terms of space and operations. Smart buildings have opened the door to better use of buildings, no matter the purpose.

Here is a sampling of industries and how automation is helping drive better results.

Healthcare: Building automation solutions such as automated window shades and intelligent lighting controls can make hospitals and healthcare facilities more comfortable for patients and their families.

Senior Living: Pressure sensors in beds and automated lighting settings improve safety for residents in senior living and long term care facilities.

Education: Smart locks, digital display screens and other IoT building devices can be used in school buildings to create a safer, more secure and more productive learning environment.

Hotels and Hospitality: Customizable building automation options such as digital thermostats, intelligent lighting and other solutions can enhance the guest experience in the hospitality industry.

Summary

The application of robotics to construction has yet to catch up with other industries such as automobile manufacturing but there has been considerable progress.

A construction site is a complex system involving many disciplines operating simultaneously; thus automating construction processes and integrating them into the overall process will require continued identification of system and subsystem tasks that can be impacted. This strategy will allow future, and in some cases, real time modification of processes and sequences; thus making the system adaptive to the often varying construction environment. 

Why DigiBuild?

DigiBuild is a blockchain-enabled construction project management platform. Our customers manage workflows such as procurement, budgets, schedules, contracts, and payments. DigiBuild allows for collaboration across 50+ disparate construction stakeholders – all on a single platform. 

We are the first to merge our construction management expertise with blockchain technology to create the world’s most revolutionary technology bringing risk management and visibility to your projects.

Through verifiable collaboration, we eliminate risk, disputes, save time and create a healthier and happier global construction industry.

Robert Salvador

About The Author

Rob Salvador is the visionary driving force behind DigiBuild, an experienced builder, project manager and construction technologist. Since the age of 10, Rob has witnessed what it was like, firsthand for his Dad struggling to run his construction company. He eventually started his own construction company and those experiences and the lack of change over that time span led to his mission of creating a better way to operate construction projects and the construction community. Rob’s passion and previous cryptocurrency startup experiences are what led to him becoming a blockchain expert. In 2017 he had his ‘aha moment’ and the idea of 'how to' apply blockchain to construction took form and DigiBuild was born.

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