There’s a lot of buzz these days about drones, 3D printing and robots. It’s easy to brush these technologies off as fads or luxuries until you understand some of the use cases that are being applied by integrating these emerging technologies. As each one matures, we are getting much closer to a world where structures can be built completely automated and unmanned. I have talked to a number of companies in this space and here’s what I have found.
Agility at scale wins
Building large complex structures is a very expensive and time-consuming undertaking. The Freedom Tower in New York City took more than seven years to complete. Last year, The Guardian showed a video of a 57-story building being built in 19 days in China. Granted, this building is not as complex a structure as the 104-story Freedom Tower, but 19 days is still astonishing.
How are companies achieving these remarkable feats? They are combining multiple emerging technologies to gather data, automate processes and build structures with more precision, accuracy and speed. These technologies also enable investors to see value from their large investments much sooner than in the past, resulting in a faster ROI.
Automation enabled by data
Inspections play a crucial role in construction. Before a single piece of foundation is built, the construction site goes through a series of inspections to understand various data points about the soil, drainage, vegetation, surface space and much more. Once the construction process starts, many more inspections are necessary to ensure worker safety, compliance, quality, progress and many other critical data points. In traditional construction, all these inspections are mostly manual, time-consuming and sometimes even dangerous to execute. Imagine the risk of inspecting beams on the 34th floor of a building under construction.
Drones are now being deployed to expedite these inspections. They can cover a wide area in short time spans. They have very advanced lenses that can capture detailed, close up images, and send data in real time to computer systems and intelligent machines which can react in real time to the data received. There are many advantages to collecting digital data from drones. One large benefit is that the data lets builders perform pre-construction simulations, allowing them to test various hypotheses and designs and lower the risk of error before breaking ground for the first time. Another benefit, which I will expand on later, is being able to perform construction tasks remotely and unmanned.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is also transforming the way complex structures are being built printing concrete structures at high speed. The 3D printing industry published the top 10 3D printed construction innovations, which I recommend viewing. One of the most amazing innovations was from Amsterdam based 3D printing company MX3D. Check out the video below of an unmanned robot 3D printing an entire bridge.
3D printing is also being used to print complex, curved, layered and artistic structures and objects that make up modern buildings. Creating these complex objects by hand and at scale is a massive undertaking, but with 3D printing the task becomes much more efficient.
Automated robots are being used to construct beams, lay bricks, drill, dig, paint and perform almost any task required to build structures. What is really exciting in this space is the ability to perform construction remotely and unmanned. Innovative companies have built solutions that allow smart robots to work synchronously to construct complex objects. All this can be done under the watchful eye of a technician from across the world over the web.
I recently talked to RoboticsX, a high-tech startup in Germany. Their vision is to change the world in the space and robotics industry. They say that “If Elon Musk is going to Mars , our robots and systems will be the first passengers”. RoboticsX is currently working on autonomous robotics that will allow for the construction of buildings and structures on Mars that will perform under changing environments and without constant supervision from earth. Their current focus is to perfect this technology and apply it to the “Digital Factory” to optimize manufacturing plants in what many call the Industry 4.0 way. These robots are being used in the automotive industry to manufacture cars, trucks and other vehicles and in the pharmaceutical industry to produce products. Peter Boras, CEO & co-founder, said they are testing scaling up to 3,000 robots collaborating at once. The image below shows two robots collaborating on the construction of a product.
The construction industry is being disrupted and we are still in the very early stages. The rates of innovation in a number of technologies have enabled pioneers in the construction industry to leverage technology to radically change business models for erecting large buildings and structures. Drones, big data, machine learning, 3D printing and robotics are some of the key enabling technologies leading the disruption. As machines get smarter and more capable each year, the vision of building on Mars becomes less of a fantasy and closer to a reality.