Construction: an industry ripe for automation
The march of automation in the construction industry has been patchy compared to other sectors.
Robotics are leading the way in the deployments in road, tunnel and bridge construction and other forms of infrastructure. Remote-controlled cranes and other automated systems have had limited application in building construction. Innovations such as bricklaying robots have yet to seriously percolate the sector. But there is an increasing interest in the use of 3D printed components, particularly for complex projects.
Technology plays an important role in the design phase. 3D imaging is helping to reduce the risk of design flaws that might otherwise not be recognised until a building is constructed. Computer-based fly-throughs and walkthroughs allow clients to check on the design ahead of construction. This means that any problems with, for example, service locations can be addressed before the first sod is turned, which should reduce risk.
Construction projects using robotics need to be assured that these systems will work as expected. A remote-controlled crane that suddenly stops responding to commands sent from someone at ground level injects delay and risk to a project. Similarly, the satellite systems which manage spatial awareness between multiple cranes on a single site to avoid boom collisions, play a critical role in the smooth operation of high-intensity construction sites. A failure or attack of those systems can be costly and dangerous.
Smart buildings – not always so smart
The deployment of intelligent building control and operating systems have the most acute impact on automation in construction.
Even though these systems are tested during design, some companies are learning that when rolled out at scale, they are not always performing as expected. This may extend the testing and commissioning phase of construction adding unforeseen cost to a project as well as handover delays.
An additional complication arises when construction companies are building robot enabled structures which will replace the jobs previously performed by people. Some construction companies have been required to sign confidentiality clauses about the buildings they are constructing. For example, clients demand confidentiality when they are building large fully automated warehouses intended to replace facilities which once employed several hundred people. Building operators can be concerned that a leak ahead of a formal announcement could bring the risk of union action or sabotage.
Generally, insurance would cover deliberate damage to a facility; it might not cover the cost of delays because of site blockades.
Construction companies should keep a close eye on the development of automation technologies. The adoption and integration of automation could be the best opportunity for construction businesses to thrive in the next decade. However, don’t forget that companies implementing automation technologies can expose new challenges. Companies must regularly review their risk register – and if gaps are identified – execute strategies to mitigate them.