The thing about change is that sometimes it overwhelms us.
Take robotics into construction. They are already deployed and working.
Did we notice?
Sure, these are mostly early and entry-level designs, but they’re here and growing in both capabilities and applications, just like the personal computer or cell phone when it arrived. . At first an expensive novelty. Now an indispensable tool for business and leisure that fits in our pockets.
While things are improving in Canada, we are falling far behind the rest of the world.
Certainly, drones, robotic dogs, masonry machines, cobblestone machines have already been built and deployed.
Bulldozers can grade a site by following their software’s perimeter guidelines. Small robotic devices chip away at concrete during demolition work. And there’s usually a human role in that somewhere.
Volvo’s heavy equipment can be operated miles away, but there’s a human in the chair flipping the controls. It’s the same with the robots in front of me.
In Europe, modular factories are commonplace, but perhaps no one is as advanced as the Chinese, where the fast-growing nation is banking heavily on more robot-powered factories as it ramps up production of just about everything, including construction.
Bright Dream has built 18 construction robots that have been used in 120 projects around the world for painting, sanding concrete pours, pouring concrete, floating concrete and more. Meanwhile, satellite-guided robots build roads, until the final finish.
China’s most ambitious robot project is also about to be launched, the construction of a huge hydroelectric dam in Tibet by 2024.
The South China Morning Post reports that the 180-meter-tall Yangqu Dam will control robots via AI, print the structure layer by layer, deliver materials via driverless transport trucks, bulldozers, pavers and rolls.
In Canada, we are on the road. Robotics is also on deck during renovations to Bruce Power’s nuclear reactor, where a series of $25 billion upgrades are planned through mid-2060 on all eight units there.
Byron House, senior manager of tooling and innovation for large projects at Bruce Power, explains that two robots from ATS Automated Tooling Systems in Cambridge, Ontario. are expected to report for work in the spring of 2023. It’s part of a $40 million contract first signed in 2016, which was extended to $60 million in 2018.
“Installing the fuel channels involves 26 steps and it’s very repetitive,” he says, noting that each unit has 480 channels with 960 smaller tubes. “The contract with the province requires that we find savings through innovation over time and become more efficient, so we started looking at automation. Protecting workers and minimizing their exposure to any radiation is also a considerable factor.
Human craftsmen will still be needed to assemble the material and prepare it for the machines, but the overall impact, it is hoped, will be to increase the rate of production.
“There will be no downsizing,” he said.
Two robots – or automated tools as they are called – will work on Unit 3 in the first quarter of 2023, first to remove the internal pressure tube and larger calender tubes, then to inspect and prepare the components for the insertion.
These Chinese robots produce tall structures in months, says Chris Rausch, who works with Carl Haas at the University of Waterloo and has worked on automating construction workflows.
More recently, he has developed algorithms and automated solutions for adaptive building reuse, prefabrication and offsite construction.
He sees a “growing appetite for automation and robotics in construction”.
Canada is also advanced in the development of factory-made prefabricated panels for home construction, but there are obstacles.
Mass production techniques and technologies are not always well transferred to the construction industry because there is little room for customization.
“If you’re building a Ford F-150 chassis, you’re optimizing the design for mass production,” he says. “It doesn’t really work that way in construction, although there needs to be some standardization.”
Economies of scale in producing 50,000 F-150 bodies with robots brings efficiencies, but construction projects have much lower production numbers and do not achieve this level of efficiency.
For prefabricated robotic modules to take off there will be a learning curve where the focus should be on quality rather than production quantity and this could apply to any area of automation in building.
“First, gain a skill level, then add complexity to achieve the objective realistically, without biting off more than you can chew.”