​​Digital Builder Ep 47: The Real Impact of Robotics on Construction Sites

It’s no secret that manual labor in construction can take a significant toll on the human body, and high-strain activities can have a detrimental long-term impact for many workers.

And that only one way that robotics is making an impact on construction: By supplementing how workers already do their jobs, robots are helping to relieve them of the burden of high-strain tasks, freeing workers to do their jobs faster, safer, and more efficiently.

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On this podcast episode

In this episode recorded live at Autodesk University, I sat down with Brooke Gemmell, Emerging Technology Partner at Skanska, to discuss the current state of robotics in construction and how it will impact the industry in the coming years.

We discuss:

  • How robots make manual labor and redundant activities easier
  • The biggest myths about robotics in construction
  • Benefits of adopting robotics technology
  • Biggest obstacles to widespread adoption and how to mitigate them
  • Best practices for adoption

The current state of robotics in construction

According to Brooke, while robotics in construction is becoming more prevalent, most of these tools are still in the pilot stage.

"We're starting to see so many more robotic applications. I think one thing that may be a misconception is just how readily available they are on projects. Most of the tools out there are only being piloted on a select few projects because we're still learning how can we really use these and what's the biggest impact for these tools."

She adds they've been exploring various use cases of robotics at Skanska. For instance, they've used the Mule, which eliminates the need for workers to lift heavy masonry. Other examples include the Spot Robot from Boston Dynamics, which is utilized for progress documentation and laser scanning, and the HP Site Print, which automates site layout.

But despite the potential benefits, the adoption of robotics isn't widespread quite yet, mainly because we still need to do further research and process integration.

As Brooke points out, "There are lots of applications, but they're not being used across the board on all sites. We have these really high fidelity tools, but we're seeing pretty limited usage across the board just because it's early on, and a lot of research and development testing still needs to go into these."

The biggest myths about robotics in construction

One of the most prevalent misconceptions about robotics is that construction workers are scared and aren't open to adopting robotic solutions.

But this couldn't be further from the truth, Brooke says.

"I've been on a lot of project sites where we've had robotic solutions deployed, and first off, people are really excited about it. They want to learn more and they want to engage."

Brooke adds robotics helps workers, and many construction pros recognize this.

"Robots are helping people go home earlier, less tired, and with less strain. We're also taking people out of dangerous situations and using robots in those places."

Beyond safety, robotic solutions can also aid worker efficiency.

"In many instances, we're actually increasing their productivity and profitability, so they're able to do more over a shorter amount of time. A lot of times, job sites still have the same number of people, but they can get the job done sooner, which speeds up the project schedule."

Brooke continues, "It frees up those crews to work on other projects. Everyone has plenty of work to go around."

Additional benefits of adopting robotics technology

When asked how firms can benefit from robotics, Brooke reiterates the importance of safety and the protection of construction's most valuable resource—people.

Robotics aid humans in hazardous areas such as risky environments or confined spaces. For instance, Brooke brings up a UK project where they used robotic cone laying machines to eliminate the risk of workers getting struck by cars when marking off an area with cones.

"Just the safety aspect alone is enough to want to invest in construction robotics. There are so many applications like that where we can put a robot into a dangerous situation."

She adds, "Robotic tools can also reduce the strain on the body. They help teams be more efficient and go home at the end of the day."

Biggest obstacles to widespread adoption and how to mitigate them

One of the main challenges in adopting construction robots is the cost of implementing them.

"Robotics are expensive, especially if you're purchasing an entire robotic system. When you see the sticker price of some of these solutions, it's shocking and it's hard to get approval for a six-figure investment."

The good news is that you don't have to spend a ton of money on robotics right from the get-go. As Brooke points out, there are options.

"You could do a smaller pilot, you could do a lease, or maybe share it with a couple of different parties," she explains.

Brooke also stresses the importance of process integration and understanding the specific value that robotics brings to the construction site. She recommends asking questions like "How do we bring these onsite?" and "How do we communicate the value?" to hone in on your initiatives.

"Oftentimes, especially if something's completely replacing a worker, we can directly compare the time it takes for a person to do something versus the time for a robot, and you can do an ROI calculation. I think those are helpful, but you also need to think about the overall impact—and that's not always easy to quantify in hours or dollar signs."

Best practices for adoption

Robots will undoubtedly play a role in the future of construction. And if you're interested in learning more about the technology and how you can adopt robotics in your firm, there are several steps you can take to figure out the best route.

"There are so many different ways to get involved, and it usually starts with exposure to robotics. So going to construction technology conferences is a great place to get exposure," Brooke points out.

"You can reach out to the vendor and set up a demo. You can hear one-on-one from their product team. There are also a lot of opportunities to control robots remotely and see what's happening from afar. Or, you can go in person and talk to people and view live demos."

Brooke encourages folks to find community events and opportunities to connect with people also interested in robotics.

"Get involved with your community. In any major city, I promise you—you can find a robotics meet-up."

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Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every week.

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Eric Thomas

Eric is a Sr. Multimedia Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk and hosts the Digital Builder podcast. He has worked in the construction industry for over a decade at top ENR General Contractors and AEC technology companies. Eric has worked for Autodesk for nearly 5 years and joined the company via the PlanGrid acquisition. He has held numerous marketing roles at Autodesk including managing global industry research projects and other content marketing programs. Today Eric focuses on multimedia programs with an emphasis on video.