From bricklaying robots, to exoskeleton suits and giant 3D on-site printers, technological innovations are changing almost every aspect of construction design and delivery.
The global virtual reality hardware and software market is expected to grow from $1.37 billion in 2015 to $33.9 billion by 2022, according to market research company Frost & Sullivan.
Virtual and augmented reality
Virtual reality headsets, such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, give designers a ‘true to life’ experience of spaces to test different layouts, materials or finishes, well before a shovel hits the ground.
Augmented reality systems, such as Microsoft’s Hololens, project 3D holograms and context-specific data onto a glass visor. This enables users to view and manipulate models while maintaining visual contact with other people and their surroundings.
Virtual reality technology proved critical to managing health and safety on the Slussen project in Stockholm – a €1.2 billion redevelopment of a lock complex in the most historically important part of the city centre.
The Chief of Greater Stockholm’s Fire Department donned a pair of HTC Vive goggles to navigate a detailed 1:1 scale model of the scheme using a joystick. This enabled him to examine access routes for emergency services, understand clearance space in stairways in case a person collapses and needs carrying out, and check ladder access and ceiling heights.
Johan Stribeck, Area Business Manager at consultancy Tikab, tells Building Sight: "In just one minute he learnt how to move in the environment and review the function of the complicated sluice mechanism for the locks. This virtual reality is not a fake architectural model intended to show off; it is a core construction tool for the design phase."
The sci-fi trope that robots will one day replace humans is no longer a distant fantasy. Scientists in Singapore have developed an autonomous robot that can spray-paint the interiors of industrial buildings faster than humans, operating around the clock, even in complete darkness.
The PictoBot machine, developed by the Robotic Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), navigates the interior space using an optical camera and a laser, painting walls up to 10 metres high with a robotic arm.
New bricklaying robot Hadrian X, due to go on sale for £1.25 million in late 2017, will be capable of laying about 1,000 bricks an hour, equivalent to the entire shell of a house in just two days.
Developed by Australian firm Fastbrick Robotics, it resembles a regular truck with a telescopic arm that places bricks with precision and accuracy using a laser guidance system.
Oliver Gray, Communications Coordinator at Fastbrick, says: "Our innovation has been quite divisive when it comes to the perceived impact on the bricklaying industry. The reality is, however, that the Hadrian X has the potential to be an immensely positive change – greatly improving the quality of working conditions and removing the often-dangerous circumstances in which bricklayers have to work."
Printing large structural components, or even entire buildings, directly on site could make construction faster and cheaper, and some have even claimed it could solve the global housing crisis.
In February, French contractor Vinci Construction took an equity stake in XtreeE – a French start-up developing a 3D printing system for large-scale concrete structures. The contractor agreed to test the technology on live projects, saying that 3D printing offers “revolutionary potential” for the construction sector.
XtreeE previously partnered with concrete manufacturer LafargeHolcim to print Europe’s first load-bearing structural element and a three-metre-tall concrete pavilion.
The potential to print 3D structures in metal is being explored by Dutch robotics firm MX3D, which plans to begin manufacturing a steel bridge over a canal in Amsterdam before the summer.
The project involves a collaboration between software firm Autodesk, builder Heijmans, and robotics supplier ABB, where two robots with multi-directional welding nozzles will ‘draw’ the bridge in situ, working from one bank of the canal to the other.
In the not-too-distant future, fleets of bulldozers, dump trucks and excavators could traverse sites without operators behind the controls. Plant manufacturers, including Komatsu, Caterpillar and Volvo CE, are investing in autonomous innovations they believe have the potential to make jobsites safer and work more efficiently and accurately.
In December last year, Volvo CE demonstrated a prototype autonomous wheel loader and articulated hauler working together – the wheel loader filled the articulated hauler, before dumping its load and repeating the cycle.
A one-hour comparison showed that the autonomous wheel loader could achieve a 70 per cent increase in productivity, when loading and unloading, compared with the same vehicle with a skilled operator at the controls. The same machine has been deployed on a real project at an asphalt plant in Sweden.
The machines were programed to perform the same task repeatedly along a fixed route, but currently lack the required safety and performance levels for industrialization, says Jenny Elfsberg, Director of Emerging Technologies at Volvo CE: "Currently these prototype machines do not communicate with each other and machine- to-machine communication technology will be crucial when it comes to avoiding collisions."
Remember the scene in the movie Aliens, where the character Ellen Ripley climbs inside a giant robot to move cargo? Similar power- enhancing exoskeleton technologies are available today to help construction workers lift heavy loads without straining their limbs.
Panasonic has started mass producing the Assist Suit AWN-03 exoskeleton, which straps around the user’s shoulder, waist and one thigh. Engines in the suit respond to sensors to automatically move and reduce the energy needed to lift a heavy object, up to a maximum of 15 kilograms of force.
Other wearable technology has been implemented to monitor physical activities on site and identify potential causes of injuries, with a greater accuracy than possible before.
ViSafe wearable sensors, supplied by Australian firm dorsaVi, are embedded with movement sensors that record data, synchronized with video capture, to give a real- time picture of body movement, position, posture and muscle activity. Sophisticated software and algorithms interpret the data to give clients a clearer understanding of workplace injuries or occupational health issues.
Vinci Construction used the system to validate the effectiveness of a scaffold-mounted mortar board designed to reduce repetitive bending during bricklaying. The results showed it significantly reduced activities associated with lower back pain and boosted productivity, supporting the contractor’s decision to implement it on site.
Zoe Whyatt, Chief Operating Officer at dorsaVi, explains: "Where previously firms’ decisions were based on either guesswork, past experience or best practice, using technology to capture objective data means we can turn decisions from 'I reckon' to 'I know'."
As technological advances revolutionize the full life cycle of built assets, from concept design to demolition, the opportunity to alleviate many of the problems that have traditionally plagued construction, such as skills shortages, health and safety issues or delivery delays, has never been greater.
However, in order to reap the full rewards, project stakeholders including construction companies, technology providers, clients and government regulators must invest in innovation and skills and adapt their processes and attitudes, or risk being left behind.
For further information, please contact Carole Bissett, Managing Director, National Practice Leader – Construction at ClientFirst@jltcanada.com