By   November 8, 2017

There is a whole lot of buzz nowadays about drones, 3D printing and robots. It’s easy to brush these technologies off as fads or luxuries until you understand a few of the cases which are being applied by integrating those emerging technologies. As everyone matures, we are getting much closer to a world where structures could be constructed entirely automatic and unmanned. I’ve talked to a variety of companies in this space and here is what I have discovered.

Agility at scale wins

Building big complex structures is a very expensive and time-consuming endeavor. The Freedom Tower in New York City took over seven years to complete. This past year, The Guardian showed a video of a 57-story building being constructed in 19 days in China. Granted, this construction is not as complicated a structure as the 104-story Freedom Tower, but 19 days remains an astonishing achievement.

How are companies attaining these remarkable feats? They are combining multiple emerging technologies to gather data, automate processes and construct structures with more precision, and speed instead of using the largest cranes or double the manpower. These technologies also allow investors to determine value out of their large investments much sooner than in the past, leading to a quicker ROI.

Automation enabled by data

Inspections play a crucial part in building. Before a single piece of engineered timber, the concrete or foundational base is constructed, the construction site goes through a series of inspections to comprehend various data points concerning the soil, drainage, vegetation, surface space and a whole lot more. Once the building procedure starts, many more reviews are necessary to guarantee worker safety, compliance, quality, progress and many other critical data points. In conventional construction, all these inspections are mostly manual, time-consuming and at times even dangerous to execute. Imagine the risk of examining beams on the 34th floor of a building under construction.

Drones are now being set up to expedite these inspections. They can cover a broad area in short time spans. They have quite advanced lenses which may capture detailed, close-up images, and send data in real time to computer systems and machines which could react in real time to the information received. There are many benefits of collecting digital information from drones. A large benefit is that the data allows builders to perform pre-construction simulations, permitting them to test many hypotheses and designs and reduce the risk of error before breaking ground for the first time. Another benefit, which I will expand on later, is having the capability to do construction jobs remotely and unmanned.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is also transforming the way complex structures are being built printing concrete constructions in high speed. The 3D printing business published the top 10 3D printed structure inventions, which I recommend watching. Among the most astonishing innovations was from Amsterdam based 3D printing firm MX3D. One of the videos featured an unmanned robot 3D printing a whole bridge.

3D printing is also being used to publish complex, curved, layered and artistic structures and objects which make up modern buildings. Creating these intricate objects by hand and in the scale is a massive undertaking, but with 3D printing, the job becomes much more effective.

Automated robots are being used to construct beams, lay bricks, dig, drill, place timber beams, paint and perform just about any task needed to construct structures. What is really exciting in this area is the ability to do construction unmanned and remotely. Innovative businesses have built solutions that allow smart robots to operate synchronously to assemble complex objects. All this could be achieved under the watchful eye of a technician from throughout the world over the net.

RoboticsX, a high-tech startup in Germany was recently spoken to. Their vision is to change the entire world from space and robotics business. They state that “If Elon Musk is going to Mars, our robots and systems will be the first passengers”. RoboticsX is presently focusing on autonomous robotics which will enable the construction of buildings and structures on Mars which will perform under changing environments and without continuous supervision from earth. Their current focus is to constantly 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 sector to produce goods. Peter Boras, CEO & co-founder, stated they are testing scaling around 3,000 robots working at the same time.

Summary

The construction industry is being disrupted and we are still in the very early phases. The number of innovation in several technologies have allowed leaders in the building sector to leverage technology to radically change business models for constructing large structures and buildings. The move form drake low loaders to drones, large information, machine learning, 3D printing, and robotics are some of the key enabling technologies leading the disruption. As machines get smarter and more competent each year, the vision of construction on Mars becomes less of a dream and more of a reality.