Construction: Bring in the robots

2000 AD

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Cover of 2000 AD prog. 1980. Art by Mike McMahon. Rebellion Developments A/S 2000-2016. Originally published in 1980 by IPC Media.

Growing up in 1970’s England, the weekly delivery of comics was the highlight of a certain boy’s life.

One of these comics was ‘2000 AD’- a futuristic tome with characters such as Judge Dredd & containing plenty of megacities, cyborgs, teleporters, lasers & robots. Such technology would presumably be part of daily life in the then distant year 2000.

I obviously didn’t think about this at the time- but it could be expected that the technology from crime-fighters and superheroes might have spilled over into more mundane purposes such as construction.

After all- if you compare say a car factory from 1977 with one of today- then it is dramatically different and robots have replaced human workers (although not entirely).
Even industries such as shipbuilding, farming & mining have changed significantly and are becoming increasingly automated.

Of course, no-one could have imagined the technological change that would occur in just a few decades- from the pervasiveness of Google to the evolution of social media.
I don’t need to state that society as a whole has changed significantly through technology, and that entire industries have become extinct and new ones have evolved.

But this technology change generally does not apply to construction (yet). The construction site of 2018 is remarkably similar to one of 1978.

How has construction changed ?

Not much. There is occasionally a bit of excitement about a brick-laying robot, but that’s about it. This interesting article covers possible future technology changes in construction, and the impact on skills & resourcing due to increased automation.

These blog posts BIM: Where next ? #1 & BIM: Where next ? #2 & BIM Analytics: next revolution in Design & Construction ? are my 2c on the future.

Sure:

  • We use computers to produce drawings, sometimes from 3D models (although this can be not much more than an electronic pencil). Still, most people still look just at the paper or 2D outputs from this process
  • Surveyors have laser based rather than optical/mechanical theodolites, and drones are starting to be used in surveying. Pointclouds have become widespread.
  • Some components such as steelwork, joinery or facade panels might be produced on a CNC machine or through an automated fabrication process. Prefabrication seems to be on the rise.
  • Everyone has a mini-computer in their pocket in the form of a smartphone- but it is typically not used for much more than a phone or a camera
  • There are various dabblings with AR/VR technologies in design & construction- although not many people go beyond the initial wow-factor of the goggles and find something useful in the long-term to do with them
  • Some industries such as mining & roadbuilding are moving towards autonomous plant or machine control systems
  • The penny is slowly beginning to drop that computational design & construction and analytics might be a better way of making profits rather than screwing subcontractors and clients for variations.

However:

  • Most construction still involves trucking a pile of materials (bricks, cement/concrete, timber, plasterboard, formwork) and the human workers put it together on site.
  • The communication medium on many construction sites is still a dog-eared stack of drawings (as a concession to technology, possibly transmitted as PDFs)
  • Nearly all contracts are written around drawings (or electronic drawings), and outputs such as digital models are generally in a contractual no-mans-land, with many people unsure what they are good for.
  • Most approval processes- by clients, authorities, certifiers or councils are based entirely on 2D drawings.
  • The metrics for construction productivity and efficiency are similar (perhaps worse) than that of 40 years ago. Margins are razor-thin and most construction companies survive on cashflow (volume of work) more than anything else.

All up- it is fair to say that the construction industry really has been very slow in embracing technology.

What is the future ?

I would like to think that as we approach the year 2020, the technology changes experienced in other industries will translate into construction to a far greater degree.

Perhaps not to the level I imagined when reading these comics- although cyborgs could be useful in minimising ‘industrial action’ issues…

By now, part of me (the 10-year old bit) was expecting to see something like this on a construction site. For my part, I am bringing benefits to construction through the use of technology, albeit not with robots just yet.

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