Devices such as exoskeletons have reached the construction sector, facilitating the performance of heavy tasks. Credit: Ekso Bionics.

  • Innovation

From supersoldiers to super construction workers


Automation no longer only affects specific industries, such as the military. Different sectors are now being transformed by robots. In some cases, machines capable of working side by side with humans have begun to be used. In others, devices are being tested to alleviate heavy tasks, such as these exoskeletons tested by Ford workers in Almussaffes (Valencia). To what extent has this technological wave reached the construction sector?

The first advances were made in the 1980s thanks to the push from Japan, as Ernesto Gambao, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, points out. The Asian country has become a leader in this field, with results that seem almost science fiction. A recent example is this prototype of a working humanoid presented in 2018, which can perform tasks such as taking a board placed horizontally, putting it vertical and then carrying it to a wall and affixing it with a drill. The robot measures 182 cm and weighs 101 kilos, emulates human movements and is endowed with three-dimensional vision, according to its developers at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology.

Some of Japan’s largest construction companies, such as Shimizu, have spent years investigating how to implement robots in their production processes. Last year, the company announced that it was already testing a system that envisions using three robots capable of carrying out, under the instructions of a worker sent via a tablet, actions such as transporting materials horizontally, welding columns and affixing panels to ceilings and floors, all in a space shared with human workers. The company added that some tests were already underway during the construction of a building in Osaka and that it planned to extend them to different work sites in Tokyo.

The HRP-5P, the Japanese construction robot, is a prototype of a working humanoid designed to perform heavy work autonomously. Credit: AIST.

Work is also underway in the US and Europe

Both European and American companies do not want to be left behind either. Advanced Construction Robotics, for example, markets a robot capable of interacting with construction workers to tie rebar in bridge construction. In this robotic race, Gambao highlights some of the main trends, such as creating machines to "clean the facades of buildings", "help in the handling of materials", "automate excavators and trucks" and introduce drones for the inspection and monitoring of construction projects.

In Spain, one of the innovative companies in this sector is Sacyr. Among the projects currently under development, Tunnelad, done in collaboration with engineers from the Polytechnic University of Madrid, will autonomise three trucks used for the loading and unloading of debris in tunnels by 2021. To achieve this, a kit will be installed in each of them, equipped with a system for locating and perceiving the environment, connected with software for controlling and monitoring the mechanical and electrical systems of the vehicle.

Miguel Martín Cano, in charge of the project, explains that the idea is to optimise "a very repetitive job" —in which the truck follows a path between a fixed unloading point and a loading point that moves according to the progress of the excavations in the tunnel— which can be controlled very effectively by reducing the human presence. The main advantages of this automation are "the improvement of the security conditions" of the people working in that environment, "the optimisation of economic efficiency" and the increase in the capacity to monitor the machines and anticipate potential technical problems.

The robotization of the construction sector necessarily involves encouraging effective collaboration with humans. Credit: Construction Robotics.

Kitanai, Kitsui, Kiken, the three 'Ks' of construction work

In Japanese, construction work is often referred to as dirty work (kitanai, in the original language), hard work (kitsui) and dangerous work (kiken). This means that there is a growing shortage of qualified workers willing to accept such conditions. The search for solutions to this problem is one of the main drivers of automation. "We believe that the key to increasing productivity is to improve working conditions and increase salaries and days off," they say at Shimizu. They state that humans and robots working together is part of achieving that goal.

The problem of the lack of new workers and the aging of the current ones also affects Spain. Gambao shares Shimizu's idea that robotisation can make new contributions to improve this situation, but recalls that there are other priorities as well. "Before undertaking new projects, we should remember that there is a huge number of buildings and infrastructure in general to rehabilitate, inspect, rebuild or modify," he maintains.

Although we can already find examples of applications that take advantage of the potential of automation in construction, Gambao believes that it’s still too early to talk about a true robotic revolution. "It's a traditional sector, which is the main difficulty." He also notes the existence of two specific obstacles: the fact that construction works are carried out in changing environments, in continuous evolution, and the complexity required to be able to carry out non-standardised production designs. "It's not like making cars, where you're going to produce hundreds of thousands of the same thing. Here each project can be different," he maintains. Nevertheless, he is convinced that the moment will come when there will be robots contributing to the construction of buildings with a weight similar to what they contribute in other sectors. "I think there are going to be significant developments in the coming decade."

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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