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Is There a Place for Cobots in Construction?

Kayla Matthews
by Kayla Matthews. Last updated on Aug 23, 2018 8:38 AM
Posted on Aug 23, 2018 7:00 AM. 3 min read time

 Collaborative robots—also known as cobots—have revolutionized robotics by working safely alongside humans and helping them accomplish tasks faster.

They’re already in sectors like manufacturing and shipping, but will cobots soon join the construction industry, too?


A trend toward fewer humans at construction sites

Companies that oversee construction sites and contractors commonly use specialized robots: some lay bricks while others fabricate building components. However, these machines don’t work alongside humans. Instead, people operate them, or at least supervise their movements. However, the shift toward automation could entice pioneering companies to try operating human-free construction zones.

construction siteAs they become more versatile and widespread, cobots could be instrumental in reducing the construction-worker shortage that’s especially prevalent in the US housing market.


Construction cobots must be extremely durable

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) revealed that in 2016, one in five worker deaths occurred in the construction industry.

Getting struck by objects and becoming caught between or inside equipment were two of the most common causes of death. To be durable, cobots used in construction must be made to tolerate such accidents—or at least not be ruined if they happened.

Human lives are more valuable than cobots, of course, and two advantages humans have over cobots are quick reflexes and the acquired knowledge of which equipment is most dangerous to handle.

For example, someone could see a brick falling from a height of several stories and potentially dart out of the way. Although cobots might have sensors for environmental monitoring, they still probably wouldn’t respond as quickly as humans.

Plus, it's possible to program cobots so they only move around specific zones and stop after coming in contact with objects. Could people in charge of the setup take enough precautions to ensure the bots don’t venture too close to machines that could crush some components?

It’s too soon to do anything more than speculate, but the fact remains that durable materials are essential for all construction-site cobots.


Cobots might ease the construction worker shortage

Depending on their design and capabilities, cobots could work around several types of machines commonly seen in the construction, whether they’re the boom lifts that raise operators above the ground or the bulldozers that push and scoop materials like gravel and dirt.

As they become more versatile and widespread, cobots could be instrumental in reducing the construction-worker shortage that’s especially prevalent in the US housing market.

At the start of 2018, there were 250,000 unfilled construction jobs on the market. The lack of qualified and available workers reportedly slows down all segments of the home-building process, and some elements that used to take less than a day now require months to accomplish.

Cobots might someday handle some of the low-skilled work of construction professionals, allowing those employees to perform tasks that aren’t realistic for cobots, such as those requiring reasoning and other kinds of critical thinking.


Potential uses for cobots in manufactured-home factories

Weather is one of many factors that can slow down on-site construction, particularly if an area gets hit with high winds that cause downed trees or flooding that inundates a home lot.

That’s why manufactured homes are often sensible solutions. Workers and machines assemble parts of them in controlled factory settings, then transport them to their destinations. It’s common to see conventional robots assisting with the assembly-line-like setup at many manufactured-home companies.

A German company called Weinmann specializes in such home-building equipment and can even plan a factory from scratch. By investing between $3 million and $10 million, depending on the extent of automation desired, a company could build as many as 1,000 homes annually with the help of Weinmann’s robotic equipment.

On a global scale, about 150 manufactured-home factories use thousands of Weinmann robots. It doesn’t seem like a stretch, then, for some of those establishments to eventually add cobots to their workforces.

In the manufacturing sector, factory workers frequently depend on cobots to help with repetitive tasks, such as inserting bolts or handling small components.

Franke, a company that manufactures kitchen sinks, uses its cobots to produce up to 10,000 sinks every year: specifically, by deploying cobots to dispense glue and attach mounting blocks to all sides of the sinks.

In addition to increasing productivity, this approach led to higher job satisfaction by freeing up employees to do more stimulating tasks. Similarly, using cobots in a manufactured-home setting could increase output while reducing burdens on the human labor force.


Cobots may eventually team up with construction professionals

To answer the question posed by the title—yes, several possible applications for cobots undoubtedly exist in the construction sector.

However, such opportunities may not present themselves for a few years or more.

Cobots are relatively new in the robotics industry and, as mentioned above, construction cobots will need materials and features that aren’t part of the existing machines.





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Kayla Matthews
Written by Kayla Matthews
Kayla Matthews is an AI and future tech writer and regular contributor to VentureBeat, Motherboard and MakeUseOf. You can read more posts from Kayla by visiting her blog:
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