Robots at work. How machines are transforming the construction job site 

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Robots and autonomous vehicles have changed the way we build, and further radical change is on our doorstep. In Part II of our series on the technological transformation of the construction industry, we look at how machines are accomplishing tasks on building sites that once required human hands. 

Imagine driverless excavators that can dig with precision at a job site and load driverless trucks that haul away the earth. Imagine technology-rich, automatic systems that can apply mortar, lay bricks, and build walls. And build bridges. And measure. And plan. While their human masters sip coffee. 

Imagine no more because it all is happening right now on construction and building sites around the world. The construction world is in the process of being revolutionized by technology and, particularly, by automation. Machines are now doing complex jobs on building sites that not long ago were done by human hands. And they’re doing it faster, cheaper, and better than people ever could. A machine, after all, doesn’t need a lunch break, sleep, or a vacation. 

“The use of technology in the building trades is speeding up every year, every month, every week, every day,” says Kevin Forestell, CEO and co-founder of Dozr, a heavy equipment rental portal enabled by technology. 

“It’s absolutely accelerating.” 

Technological transformation of the building trades is being driven by two imperatives – a never-ending quest for efficiency and lower costs and to alleviate a severe shortage of skilled labor.  

The transformation to a technologically-enabled worksite comes with risk at many levels. Capital costs to acquire autonomous equipment can be staggering. Insurance and liability guardrails need to be revised to accommodate new practices (who pays if a machine injures a person or makes a mistake due to a malfunction?). Breakdowns in machines, or the emergence of software or connectivity problems, can bring productivity at a job site to an abrupt and complete halt. 

But the allure of a technologically enhanced project, in terms of lower cost and labor savings, particularly at scale, is proving difficult to resist. 

Forestell used to run a landscaping and construction business. He says if he were running the business today instead of 15 years ago, his labor needs would be vastly different due to the changes in equipment, changes wrought by technology. 

“Instead of having 10 people on the job site, I’d have one or two,” he says. 

It’s a development with enormous implications given the shortages in skilled labor on job sites. 

“Construction as a whole, not only in terms of technology but just as a whole, is rapidly evolving,” says Forestell. “It’s safer. It’s more professional. 

“I feel like it's evolving more than any other space.” 

Here’s a look at some of the machines available in the market today and the work they’re performing: 

    hilti.jpgThe Hilti Jaibot marks and drills holes in ceilings, relieving workers from the strenuous task of overhead drilling for ceiling installations. 

    hilti.jpgThe Dusty Robotics FieldPrinter eliminates chalk lines and tape measures. It transfers digital floorplan drawings to the construction deck with precision accuracy.

    hadrian.jpgThe Hadrian X system from Australian firm FBR is a precision bricklayer that uses digital blueprints and laser guidance to build interior and exterior walls 10 times faster and with greater accuracy, than a person.

    spot.jpg “Spot,” by Boston Dynamics, is a robot that can travel a job site capturing video, still images, and data, reporting on completion progress and project status. 

    built-robo.jpgBuilt Robotics in Australia makes a hardware and software pack that attaches to a conventional excavator and turns it into a fully autonomous vehicle capable of digging precise trenches and holes. 

    TA15-Volvo.jpgVolvo makes an autonomous, emissions-free dump truck-type vehicle called Tara. It can receive a load, move it, and dump it without human intervention. 

    demo-robots.jpgSwedish light and heavy equipment maker Husqvarna produces a range of remote-controlled demolition robots that allow work to take place in dangerous environments without risk to human operators.

    The move to technology and automation on job sites, places where human hands once did much of the work, will accelerate. Technology will become better than that of today. 

    The shift will have – is having – a profound impact on jobs and labor. There will be fewer people needed, which, in an industry hobbled by labor shortages, may be a good thing. And the opportunities that will exist will require education, training, and advanced technological know-how, presenting a challenge for schools and post-secondary educational institutions. 

    But the shift is coming. The shift is here. Adaptation at scale will be required on the construction site of the future – and the one of today.