Robotics in Construction

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A group of 150 researchers and 28 professors from different areas of expertise – including architecture, structural design, materials science, computer science, robotics in construction, and control systems engineering – is leading the development and integration of digital technologies within architecture and future building processes. NCCR Digital Fabrication is testing ideas and undertaking long-term projects to study on-site digital fabrication and new technology for construction sites. A few of the research projects being undertaken by NCCR are described in the March 2019 Connect&Construct article, “Robotics in Construction: Experiments in Onsite Fabrication and Prefabrication.”

Current research projects aim to bring digital fabrication onto building sites. Integrated design, planning and robotic control processes are being investigated. Versatile onsite fabrication robots are being developed, and cooperation models are being finessed for man-machine and machine-machine interactions. This research is searching for answers to the dilemma of getting new technologies adopted so the industry has new capabilities and resilience.

One waste-free robotic fabrication process uses molds made out of mesh, which enable concrete walls and columns to be fabricated without old-style formwork. A computer-generated digital model directs a robot in making high-precision steel mesh dense enough to retain wet concrete. An additive to the concrete makes it more viscous and amenable to the mesh mold. This process is especially beneficial for non-standard shapes like geometrically curved walls, thus eliminating the need for expensive custom formwork. The mesh remains part of the final product – thus no waste. The process has already garnered international awards.

Research is also proceeding on digital fabrication: custom-designed, large-scale prefabrication of complex architectural elements. The process combines resource-efficient material systems, joining methods, design tools, and computer technologies. One example is combining high performance fiber reinforced concrete with 3D printing of sandstone. The sandstone is laid down in an aesthetic architectural design, which includes internal voids; the voids are then filled with HPFRC. This process is explained in a paper presented at the 2017 RILEM Symposium on Ultra-High Performance Fibre-Reinforced Concrete. Such options for custom architectural elements are encouraging to a design world that doesn’t want to be taken over by cold, impersonal machines.

But like it or not, robots are perfectly suited to precision assembly of geometrically complex anything, including timber modules with framing cut to any angle, not just the angles that people can cut and join. As the Connect&Construct article put it, the only thing that matters for robots on the construction site is the location of the tool. The result is that the possibilities and intricacies of timber construction are expanded. The appropriate geometric structure provides its own rigidity. As two robots work in machine-machine interaction, one guides the timber as it’s sawed to size, and the other drills the holes for the connection hardware. They together then guide the framework members into position as detailed in the digital model. Human workers actually manually bolt the beams together.

One progressive home builder, Bensonwood, has been a champion of the timber frame home. With its sister company Unity, Bensonwood begins every new construction project with a complete BIM model. It contains all the design, engineering, construction, and machine information embedded in one model. They deploy that model to their automation equipment and build prefabricated homes in a completely automated process. Since 2018, the companies have been using state-of-the-art robotics in their New Hampshire homebuilding factory. Owner Ted Benson discusses his company’s use of robotics in this thirteen-minute video, “Robotics in Construction.”

Whether or not you’re using robots in your construction projects, they are changing the complexion of your industry. Beginner, intermediate or advanced . . . at any stage your processes will benefit from having a champion “in the business.” Take a few minutes to request an Applied Software discovery call and find out how emerging technologies and processes like prefabrication can boost your firm’s productivity, safety and profit margins.

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