Robotic Manufacturing Is Coming

Mark L. Johnson / June 2019

Every day across the globe, about 200,000 people leave rural areas and move into cities, says World Economic Forum.
    
To support this growing urban population, Autodesk says contractors worldwide have to build more than 11,000 new commercial and multifamily residential structures every day. By 2030, the global construction industry will have to crank out 13,000 buildings daily. U.S. constructors will have to build 1,124 buildings a day, from now until 2050, to keep up with demand.
    
To get the job done, the construction industry will build with fewer and fewer workers. The walls and ceilings industry is right in the middle of this building boom/labor-constrained environment. Like construction firms everywhere, AWCI member contractors will need to accept help from the great assist to come: the rise of construction manufacturing and robotic automation.

Mechanization
It seems inevitable that walls and ceilings firms will have to adopt manufacturing principles and automation in place. In a way, we’ve been here before.
    
The “mechanization” of applying material to create walls and ceilings arrived after World War II. Plastering pumps were developed in the late 1940s and grew in use during the 1950s. While boosting productivity, they also transferred work from skilled plasterers to general laborers, says “Celebrating 100 Years of Industry Growth with the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry,” an AWCI publication. At the time, the plasterers’ unions struggled to keep work within their purviews. AWCI wrote agreements with those unions to set the ground rules for using machines on industry jobs.
    
Today, as construction manufacturing processes take over some scope of work, we can welcome the productivity gains. Off-site prefabrication of assemblies and components is a highly efficient process.
    
However, you may need to defend your turf, as the plasterers did 60 and 70 years ago.

Automation
As construction manufacturing falls into place, some processes are becoming and will become automated. Right now, the construction industry has low levels of automation compared to, say, the automotive industry. But, robotic applications have the potential to open some exciting possibilities.
    
Google, for example, originally proposed assembling parts of its new headquarters with robot-crane hybrids called “crabots.” The plan called for crabots to lift prefabricated building components, including walls, into place beneath huge glass canopies. Google amended those plans, and the project apparently no longer calls for robots to share in construction.
    
But, Google executives love robots. The firm has acquired Boston Dynamics, Redwood Robotics, Bot & Dolly, Meka Robotics and others in recent years. Any multinational corporation interested in robots and building a new corporate campus is bound to make waves in construction automation. What else will Google do with its more than $100 billion in cash reserves?

“iRobots” on Your Payroll
Last fall, researchers at Japan’s Advanced Industrial Science and Technology Institute reported that they had prototyped a humanoid construction robot called HRP-5P. HRP-5P can pick up and hang gypsum wallboard without human assistance. It uses environment detection, object recognition and motion control systems to hoist gypsum board into the air and fasten it in place using a screwdriver.
    
I suppose we all tend to picture robots—like Sonny from the Will Smith movie, “iRobot”—rounding out the labor pool someday. But, the more profound, and probably more immediate, automation applications will involve robotic material handling, robotic welding stations and robotic arms and cranes used in 3D printing.
    
“Robots have an increasingly important role in construction,” says the title of a recent Scientific American article online. The shortage of skilled labor across high-demand construction markets and the “confluence of requisite technologies,” the article says, “have led to a renewed interest in automation technologies for construction.”
    
I am not aware of robotic automation being operational, in the strict sense, at any AWCI member prefab shops. But it’s a matter of time.
    
Cities are booming. Urban walls and ceilings firms that do tenant improvement and build new have lots of work. But, they need manpower. Manufacturing and robotic automation are coming to the rescue, and it will be a whole new ballgame for everyone. You’ll need knowledge of machine technology and manufacturing engineering. You’ll need people with degrees in robotic sciences.

Mark L. Johnson, an industry writer who loves technology, can be reached via markjohnsoncommunications.com.