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Where’s the Automation in Building Construction?

Introduction

This story began a few months ago when I started looking at building sites still dominated by manual labor. Even today, structures are in many respects hand built. Machines are employed primarily to supplement the strength of workers; using cranes, drills, etc. but these are under direct control of humans. This contrasts to an automotive assembly line for example, where robotics have been employed for years. However, there are two trends afoot that may impact automation in building construction. The first is that technologies for construction have improved, and the second is that there is a shortage of construction labor. As a result, there may be opportunities for technical innovation in the construction industry.

Given the situation sketched above, as a thought experiment, I wondered how much automated construction could be incorporated in a building of medium complexity, using an example of what’s stereotypically known as a “5 over 1” multifamily residential building, a common building type here in the Seattle area and one becoming more common across the country.

This building category consists of a concrete or rarely steel “podium” structure of one floor, or a single floor with mezzanine, topped with 4 or 5 stories of wood framed housing units. Cost and to an extent building code issues aside, I wondered how much automation could be reasonably applied to such a structure throughout the complete building planning, design and construction process?

In summary, the prototypical “5 over one” project could employ considerable automation:

·     Site Surveyed using semi automated software and hardware.

·     Structure designed with Building Information Modeling software (BIM) so that architecture, engineering, cost estimation, scheduling, subcontracting, shop drawings, sub assemblies and overall project management would be integrated, working from a common database.

·     Excavation and grading for the foundation controlled by software and hardware configured to operated, conventional manned earth moving machinery

·     Some of the concrete foundation and podium structure’s steel reinforcement formed and assembled in the shop using semi-automated tools and methods. Steel tied together on – site using power tools.

·     The housing units stacked above the podium structure could employ one of the following;  a) panelized, b) semi modular, or c) fully modular construction, based on wood framing but optionally cold formed steel. Some modular technologies incorporate pre installed, weatherized exterior walls, while others require enclosure after modules have been placed. The degree of automation in the panel and module factories varies. Membrane roofing involves semi-automated welding techniques.

In theory, considerable automation can be applied to such a multifamily project. But considerable gaps in automation remain. And, it remains to be seen how cost effective this would be. Here are some selected details on the software, hardware and vendors that might be employed.

BIM Drives It All:

There is growing uese of Building Information Modeling (BIM) throughout the AEC Industry. BIM facilitates automated construction processes upstream/downstream. Beginning with architecture/engineering structural design, BIM then provides the basis for mechanical electrical and plumbing layout, as well as specialty sub discipline design and shop drawings, quantity surveys, cost estimates, construction schedules, and resource scheduling during construction. BIM is the basis for the code that drives automated the manufacturing and fabrication processes for modules and sub assemblies, such as steel, engineered wood, windows, and a host of other materials and assemblies.

Selected Software/Hardware Vendors:

Autodesk Revit – Full featured AEC Design https://www.autodesk.com/products/revit-family/overview

Bentley Microstation – Full featured AEC Design https://www.bentley.com/en/solutions/project-delivery/architecture-and-engineering

Vectorworks – Full featured AEC Design http://www.vectorworks.net/

Related Software Products Driven by BIM:

Shop Drawings – AGACAD – shop drawings http://www.aga-cad.com/products/bim-solutions/smart-assemblies/features

Panel Fabrications Drawings for cold formed steel and wood frame – Vertex http://www2.argos.com/web/argos/steel?gclid=CjwKCAjw47bLBRBkEiwABh-Pkf3vjMFNhdClvm_tqvR_UfSnKYGcdZqmAFvIevUW1ZyFOUmrEY0nJhoCJn4QAvD_BwE .

Light Steel Framing Layout - http://strucsoftsolutions.com/products

Enterprise Project Management and Scheduling – Oracle Primavera https://www.oracle.com/applications/primavera/solutions/index.html#capital

Cost estimation – Sage Timberline - http://www.sage.com/us/sage-construction

Control of site grading and excavation equipment – Trimble Earthworks - https://construction.trimble.com/earthworks

Foundation and Podium:

Generally reinforced concrete. Shop formed, preassembled rebar units for decks and columns, reducing need for on site assembly. However, no fully robotic shop rebar assembly and welding systems identified at this point.

Selected Vendors

Rebar detailing software- https://www.asarebar.com/Solutions/RebarSoftware.aspx.

Rebar detailing and placing - https://www.tekla.com/us/solutions/rebar-fabricators

Automated rebar bending - http://www.krbmachinery.com/magnaBend211.html.

Steel subassemblies - https://www.tekla.com/evolution/steel-fabrication.html

Modular Construction:

Modular building is already a well established product nationwide in the residential and workforce housing category and growing in popularity for selected, small commercial/institutional buildings. There are dozens of vendors throughout the US. Modular also has begun to penetrate low rise multifamily housing, dormitories and healthcare applications. Depending on the application, modules may come fully finished, including cladding for exterior walls or may require cladding after erection for multistory modular projects. Based on the building type and code requirements, modules may be either wood or light steel framed.

At the modular factory, assembly techniques range from simple manual framing – undertaken in a uniform climate controlled space – to use of simple jigs, to quite automated panel fabrication using robotics that cut, lay out and join pieces together in panels.

At the lower end of the residential market some simple homes offer outright cost advantages compared to site built. However, for mid-rise and higher projects, modular construction’s principal claimed advantage now appears to be time/cost saving on the overall construction schedule.

Selected Vendors

Blokable – a system of combinable steel framed modern modular units http://www.blokable.com/ for residential, institutional and commercial use

Kasita – modern modular furnished housing units https://kasita.com/

Katerra – a vertically integrated modern modular and building product  company https://katerra.com/

Guerdon – a large producer of modular projects http://www.guerdonmodularbuildings.com/

Lindbacks – large Swedish producer of modular projects using highly automated factory fabrication techniques http://www.lindbacks.se/

Skystone Group – employing steel framed modular units manufactured in Poland for mid and low – high rise structures in the US http://www.skystonegroup.com/modular-construction-nyc

Sub Modules; Bath and Kitchen

Where repeated identical units are found in facilities such as hotels, hospitals and dormitories there will be increasing use of modularized bathroom and kitchen units. These modules may be installed in both conventional and more automated building projects.

Vendors:

Oldcastle - https://oldcastlesurepods.com/

Pivotek - http://pivotek.net/

Panelization:

Even where full modular is not used, more panelized building units will be delivered to the site – both wood frame and light steel based. Drawing on BIM data and shop built, they are fabricated on increasingly automated production lines. Panel components, such as studs and wall sheathing, are fed into the assembly line, laid out, cut and fastened together.

Vendors:

Software and Hardware – Weinmann – Automated wood framed panel fabrication line.

https://www.stilesmachinery.com/weinmann/multi-function-bridge2

Armstrong - https://www.armstrong-homes.com/wall-panels

Sto Corp - http://www.stocorp.com/panelization-us/

Cross Laminated Timber (CLT):

While technically a panel product, CLT warrants a separate category due to its growing influence and adoption. CLT is fabricated using similar technologies to other engineered wood products like glued laminated, “glulam” beams and columns. Panels are glued together from dimensional lumber under pressure, then pre-cut and routed for openings and connectors, before shipping to the job site.

Vendors:

Structurelam, British Columbia - http://www.structurlam.com/

DR Johnson, Oregon - http://www.drjlumber.com/

Miscellaneous Automation

While not complete technologies these are worth noting.

Brick laying robot – http://www.construction-robotics.com/

Printed house – http://apis-cor.com/en/3d-printer

Steel Reinforcing Bar Tie – er - https://www.amazon.com/MABELSTAR-Rebar-RT-550-Automatic-Machine/dp/B06Y5W4K7W/ref=sr_1_45?m=A2VE3CZUQP20IO&s=power-hand-tools&ie=UTF8&qid=1494432221&sr=1-45&refinements=p_6%3AA2VE3CZUQP20IO

Automated Survey - http://www.trimble.com/Survey/Total-Station-SX10.aspx

Trends

There is a shortage of construction labor https://www.tradesmeninternational.com/news-events/the-construction-labor-shortage-where-did-all-the-skilled-labor-go/. This has been created by a labor exodus from the construction industry during and after the Great Recession; also by uncertainty about the immigration status of many Hispanic workers who traditionally have been a source of construction labor. As a result, the construction industry will need to do more with fewer people. That is, in economic terms, it must become more productive and automation is the key. Here’s the trends I see.

Continuing Growth of BIM

This facilitates automation throughout the value chain including Survey, Design, Architectural, Civil, Structural and Mechanical design and all aspects of construction management and all aspects of detailing and manufacturing.

More Shop Fabrication

In general, more construction work moving to the shop or factory, where controlled conditions lend themselves to automation and higher productivity. Think more assemblies and subassemblies being prefabricated, using fewer workers.

More Modular

Expect more use of modular construction in multifamily housing, hospital, and hotel construction in addition to single family residential. At some point, with greater efficiency and volume, modular for multifamily and commercial will become cost competitive on a cost/sf basis, not just based on time savings. Also expect the degree of automation and robotics in modular factories to grow.

More Semi Modular

As above, anticipate more use of modular sub – assemblies, principally bathrooms and kitchens which are labor and material intensive. These will be employed in both modular construction, or in conventionally framed projects.

More Panelization

Panelized building for interior walls, floors and including exterior wall panels, incorporating windows and cladding.

More Automated Fabrication

More miscellaneous sub-assemblies fabricated using automated means. Site fabrication will continue to decrease.

More Automated Measurement and Control

More use of automated measurement and control on building sites and projects and integrated with BIM.

Cross Laminated Timber in Low High Rise

Growing use of cross laminated timber in midrise and low – high rise construction which appears to be the sweet spot.

No Robots with Hammers, but you might see one Laying Bricks

Finally, it’s unlikely to see a robot with a hammer and hard hat on a job site anytime soon, but you might see one laying bricks. The Washington Post featured a story recently about a free roaming security robot that fell into a fountain at a large mixed use development in the Georgetown neighborhood https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/07/17/a-security-robot-fell-into-a-water-fountain-at-a-d-c-office-building-and-the-internet-went-wild/?utm_term=.8e612a5bcd80 . We wonder why it hadn’t been taught to swim.

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We develop and market energy efficiency strategies and technologies. We focus on the building and transportation sectors, which account for more than two thirds of the energy budget.

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