Robots gaining traction across construction industry

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©CANSTOCK PHOTO/ZHUZHU

By John Devine

Special to Ontario Construction Report

Although robotics in the Ontario construction industry is in its infancy, stakeholders say a growing use of robots on sites has the potential to address chronic labour shortages, launch new skilled careers, and enhance workplace safety.

The use of robotics is gaining traction as employers see further potential benefits in terms of productivity and growth, says Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association. And it’s not likely to cause job losses.

“We’re still in the early stages of the use of robotics in construction, but what we have seen so far looks like a potentially promising complement to the workforce on job sites, not a replacement. As more technology is adopted in the industry, new types of jobs will be added within the sector and this will attract the next generation of diverse, creative and tech-savvy workers,” she told The Report recently.

An example of that is the work of Spot the robot dog, developed by Boston Dynamics and in use by a leading Canadian construction company, Pomerleau, on a site in Montreal.

“The recent use of Spot … has highlighted some real advantages. Spot’s image-capture capability and its integration allows the site manager to compare weekly or even daily images to track the site’s progress. Spot’s designers anticipate the technology will free up an employee’s time, allowing them to leverage their talent, skills, and expertise for more crucial work,” says Van Buren.

On its website, Boston Dynamics says: “Spot is an agile mobile robot that navigates terrain with unprecedented mobility, allowing you to automate routine inspection tasks and data capture safely, accurately, and frequently,” resulting in safer, more efficient and more predictable operations.

Robots have been deployed in several pilot projects in Ontario, most commonly assessing as-built conditions using photogrammetry and LIDAR scanners on drones or robots, says Erich Schmidt, Government and Stakeholder Relations Associate, Ontario General Contractors Association, adding it’s estimated that Spot can take nearly 5,000 images per week.

Recent reports have cautioned that the industry is facing serious shortages of skilled workers over the coming years. According to BuiltForce Canada, the Ontario construction industry will need to recruit nearly 100,000 new skilled workers to keep pace with demand.

“Robotics (may) potentially ease the strain on the labour pool. They are (also) valuable in high-risk or high-exposure cases as workers are no longer required to go into potentially dangerous areas to do their work. We have already seen robotics used effectively on projects such as the Darlington retrofit project, where the risks were too great for workers,” says Schmidt.

“I think that robotics is part of the ongoing shift towards technology and innovation in the construction industry. General contractors may eventually have to adopt technology to remain competitive. Further education is also needed for those entering the skilled trades.”

The construction industry, continues Van Buren, has a solid culture of workplace safety, and that can be enhanced by the use of robots on worksites.

“Relying on the remote operation of forklifts and other heavy machinery (for instance) can increase safety onsite. The operator gets to work ‘virtually’ and is physically removed from more hazardous areas.

Automation, she adds, is less likely to diminish employment opportunities than it is to increase productivity, pointing to a 2019 McKinsey report that suggests the overall number of jobs in construction is to grow rather than shrink, with up to 200 million additional jobs by 2030.

Although they are not currently active in the Canadian sector, Built Robotics hopes to be in the future. Currently, the company is focused on the American and Australian markets and the $1 trillion global earth-moving industry, says Erol Ahmed, the company’s Director of Communications.

They’re being used to build critical infrastructure such as wind farms, gas pipelines, and new housing developments, he says.

“Robotics and new technologies will define the job sites of the 21st century, and Built has worked with the IUOE and other organizations to start developing new training programs for the kinds of jobs that robotics will help create … robotics is one way we are addressing the need for new ways of building, training, and recruiting to help address the skilled labor gap,” he told The Report.

Jobs that will be created include robotic equipment operators (REOs) to run the software and manage the robots.

“Robotics will help attract new talent, both young and experienced, that wish to use cutting-edge technologies in the industry. The appetite for new ways of working and building is huge, and there is a workforce that wants to be a part of that movement,” says Ahmed.

“On the job site, robots will help to create a safer work environment and a place where people can do their best work and let the robots handle the mundane tasks.”

Van Buren says that unlike drones and other like technologies which are less costly and easier to adopt, robotics in the Canadian construction landscape is in its early stages, and challenges are apparent, especially cost. There is little incentive, she says, for small- and medium-sized contractors to adopt innovation when they are expected to shoulder much of the upfront costs and risks on a project.

“When projects are awarded based on the lowest-cost bid, there is little left over to risk on technology.”

Recognizing the challenges inhibiting the adoption of new technologies such as robotics, the CCA is focused on advancing innovation.

“In our pre-budget submission to the federal government, we have underlined the need for programs that would financially incentivize businesses of all sizes, particularly small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to access and embrace emerging and sustainable technologies, materials, or processes,” says Van Buren.

Schmidt agrees that generally speaking, robotics can be costly, primarily due to reasons of hardware and the need for experienced operators.

“Much of the industry is still waiting for precise figures on exactly how much time or money certain robots could save a general contractor. In the context of robotic data capture, an industry-wide discussion is taking place regarding which project stakeholder is responsible for the significant investment required to put robots into the field and capture the data,” he says.

The OGCA Innovation Committee, he adds, is reviewing several pilot projects involving robotics, working to educate and evaluate their application on its member sites.

On the matter of cost, Ahmed says Built’s clients are seeing savings. Clients pay a monthly a fee to license the software and equipment, and are billed on hourly usage when the robot is running autonomously.

“Today, on average, using the robots to automate tasks helps lower costs anywhere from 10-30 percent. Over time as construction workflows and the manufacturing of equipment adapts to automation, we can expect the savings opportunity to scale upwards.”

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