Robots break new ground in construction industry
Robots break new ground in construction industry
Now the former Google engineer is turning that dream into a reality with Built Robotics, a startup that’s developing technology to allow bulldozers, excavators and other construction vehicles to operate themselves.
“The idea behind Built Robotics is to use automation technology make construction safer, faster and cheaper,” said Ready-Campbell, standing in a dirt lot where a small bulldozer moved mounds of earth without a human operator.
The San Francisco startup is part of a wave of automation that’s transforming the construction industry, which has lagged behind other sectors in technological innovation.
Backed by venture capital, tech startups are developing robots, drones, software and other technologies to help the construction industry to boost speed, safety and productivity.
Autonomous machines are changing the nature of construction work in an industry that’s struggling to find enough skilled workers while facing a backlog of building projects.
“We need all of the robots we can get, plus all of the workers working, in order to have economic growth,” said Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute in San Francisco. “As machines do some of the work that people used to do, the people have to migrate and transition to other forms of work, which means lots of retraining.”
Workers at Berich Masonry in Englewood, Colorado, recently spent several weeks learning how to operate a bricklaying robot known as SAM. That’s short for Semi-Automated Mason, a $400,000 machine which is made by Victor, New York-based Construction Robotics. The machine can lay about 3,000 bricks in an eight-hour shift — several times more than a mason working by hand.
SAM’s mechanical arm picked up bricks, covered them with mortar and carefully placed them to form the outside wall of a new elementary school. Working on a scaffold, workers loaded the machine with bricks and scraped off excess mortar left behind by the robot.
The goal, said company president Todd Berich, is to use technology to take on more work and keep his existing customers happy. “Right now I have to tell them ‘no’ because we’re at capacity,” he said.
Bricklayer Michael Walsh says the robot lessens the load on his body, but he doesn’t think it will take his job. “It ain’t going to replace people,” Walsh said.
The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers isn’t too concerned that robots will displace its members anytime soon, according to policy director Brian Kennedy.
“There are lots of things that SAM isn’t capable of doing that you need skilled bricklayers to do,” Kennedy said. “We support anything that supports the masonry industry. We don’t stand in the way of technology.”
The rise of construction robots comes as the building industry faces a severe labor shortage.
A recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 70 percent of construction firms are having trouble finding skilled workers.
“To get qualified people to handle a loader or a haul truck or even run a plant, they’re hard to find right now,” said Mike Moy, a mining plant manager at Lehigh Hanson. “Nobody wants to get their hands dirty anymore. They want a nice, clean job in an office.”
At his company’s mining plant in Sunol, California, Moy is saving time and money by using a drone to measure the giant piles of rock and sand his company sells for construction.
The autonomous quadcopter can survey the entire 90-acre site in 25 minutes. Previously, the company hired a contractor who would take a whole day to measure the piles with a truck-mounted laser.
The drone is made by Silicon Valley-based Kespry, which converts the survey data into detailed 3-D maps and charges an annual subscription fee for its services. The startup also provides drones and mapping services to insurance companies surveying homes damaged by natural disasters.
“Not only is it safer and faster, but you get more data, as much as ten to a hundred times more data,” said Kespry CEO George Mathew. “This becomes a complete game changer for a lot of the industrial work that’s being accomplished today.”
At Built Robotics, Ready-Campbell, the company’s founder and CEO, envisions the future of construction work as a partnership between humans and smart machines.
“The robots basically do the 80 percent of the work, which is more repetitive, more dangerous, more monotonous,” he said. “And then the operator does the more skilled work, where you really need a lot of finesse and experience.”
Built Robotics recently used its automated bulldozer — retrofitted with sensors and autonomous driving technology — to grade the earth on a construction site in San Jose. The project allows the startup to both test its technology and generate some revenue.
“I’m very excited about where autonomous machines could be used in our industry,” said Kyle Trew, a contractor who worked with Built Robotics on the San Jose project. “Hopefully I can use this as a tool to get an edge on some of my competitors.”
Gulf airlines Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways seen flying under radar at Farnborough Airshow
- Over 1,500 exhibitors and 100,000 trade visitors are expected to attend this week’s airshow
- Farnborough and the Paris Airshow — held on alternate years — have accounted for around 30 percent of annual commercial business
LONDON: The aviation industry heads to the UK’s Farnborough International Airshow on Monday in rude health, with higher oil prices and a strong global economy leading to predictions of a large number of orders at the week-long show.
But this time around, significant orders from Gulf carriers such as Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways are unlikely to materialize, as the region’s carriers continue to take stock after a period of bruising losses.
Over 1,500 exhibitors and 100,000 trade visitors are expected to attend this week’s airshow, one of the most important events for the global aviation industry.
Farnborough and the Paris Airshow — held on alternate years — have accounted for around 30 percent of annual commercial business for manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus since 2012, according to aviation consultancy IBA Group.
Some $124 billion worth of orders and commitments were placed at the 2016 show, according to organizers.
The aviation industry is in rude health in 2018, with passenger numbers and load factors rising internationally thanks to global economic growth.
Plane makers bagged around 900 firm or provisional orders in Paris last year, the consultancy said. And while the international order backlog is high, a similar number of orders is expected next week on the back of recent rises in the price of oil.
“The trend between oil price and annualized orders has been uncannily strong,” said IBA’s Chief Executive Officer Stuart Hatcher in a report issued July 9.
“This is not surprising given that most orders have been placed for new fuel-efficient technology, but even with such large backlogs in play, orders continue to come in as oil rises.”
This time around however, the big three Gulf carriers — Etihad Airways, Emirates and Qatar Airways — are unlikely to feature too heavily among the big spenders next week, analysts predict.
Etihad Airways made headlines in Farnborough in 2008, when it made $20 billion worth of orders from Boeing and Airbus.
Fast forward 10 years though, and the Abu Dhabi carrier is in consolidation and restructuring mode, its international expansion plan on hold following the insolvency of its European partners Air Berlin and Alitalia.
After posting an annual loss of $1.5 billion for 2017 (albeit an improvement on the previous year), Etihad earlier this month announced a reorganization into seven business units to be accompanied by further job cuts, significantly scaling back its international ambitions.
The main deals the carrier is reportedly working on with manufacturers are attempted price reductions for previously placed orders.
“It’s not the done thing to cancel existing orders at airshows,” said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at Strategic Aero Research.
Etihad did not respond to a request for comment.
John Strickland, director of JLS Consulting, said the other two big Gulf carriers were also unlikely to splash significant cash at Farnborough.
“It’s probable that any statements by Emirates and Qatar Airways will be more modest,” he told Arab News.
Dubai’s Emirates has fared better than its Abu Dhabi counterpart, reporting a $1.1 billion profit for the year ending March 2018.
Despite the airline’s continuing recovery, recent headline orders from both Boeing and Airbus are tempering the expectations for what will be announced at Farnborough.
“Emirates has placed recent orders for Boeing 787s and more Airbus A380s so large headline orders are unlikely,” said Strickland.
Emirates declined to comment.
Qatar Airways has been hit hard by the boycott of its home market by the Anti-Terror Quartet — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — last year, with the group’s CEO Akbar Al-Baker admitting the airline is likely to report a large loss for the past year.
But the company has been in acquisition mode, acquiring a 9.6 percent stake in Cathay Pacific in November for $662 million, and has expanded a number of its routes in recent months.
“Qatar Airways may plump up for more (Boeing) 777Fs as it looks to build its freight capacity in the wake of the (boycott) to alleviate import pressures on goods and services,” Ahmad told Arab News.
IBA forecasts that aircraft leasing firms may dominate Farnborough orders, accounting for between 30 and 50 percent of orders.
Ahmad told Arab News that Dubai-based DAE Capital may be one of the firms preparing to place large orders, with rumors of 100 jets apiece for Airbus and Boeing.
DAE, Airbus and Boeing did not respond to requests for comment.