With advances in technology seeing a rise in robotics and human augmentation systems, there is growing momentum for its application to the construction industry.
While these innovations will never replace highly-skilled construction workers, there is an exciting opportunity for them to support mechanical and engineering trades – making jobsites safer, addressing skilled labour shortages and enhancing productivity.
The health and safety of workers is the prime concern for employers – especially as, according to the HSE, 8.9 million working days were lost in 2019-20 due to work-related musculoskeletal injuries. These types of injuries can occur as a result of frequent overhead working – an occupational hazard in much of the HVAC sector – and can cause damage to the neck and shoulders. This reinforces the benefit for automation through robotics, which will help to relieve workers of repetitive and strenuous tasks, particularly overhead drilling. Human augmentation can also be used to support workers’ upper limbs through ‘assistive torques’. The Hilti EXO-01 exoskeleton is a wearable system that has been proven to lessen the load on muscles and joints when completing overhead work – in fact, trials have shown activity reduction of 40-48 per cent for all segments of the deltoid and biceps brachii muscles, with activity of the upper trapezius muscle decreasing by 20 per cent and shoulder joint reaction forces reduced by 30 per cent. By lowering the risk of injury on the jobsite, employers can protect employees’ health; in turn, the industry as a whole could save £646m a year in sick days, according to recent research into musculoskeletal injuries by Loughborough University.
At the same time, employers are becoming more aware of the dangers of dust, with silica dust posing the greatest risk to the health of workers. The HSE estimates that around 500 people die each year from inhaling silica dust, while approximately 4,000 people die every year from COPD. Robots, as described below, could be fitted with built-in dust extraction tools to reduce the risk of dust inhalation – adding safety to the productivity benefits.
It is also worth noting that the construction industry is considered to be an ageing workforce, with the number of workers aged 60+ increasing more than any other age group, according to the CIOB. This, coupled with a decline in the number of younger workers joining the industry, may mean that employers will soon face a scarcity of skilled labour – increasing the attraction of a move towards robotics. Not only will robot tools help to bridge the growing age gap, but they will also prevent the older workers – who are more susceptible to muscle strain – from getting injured. Increased use of robots may even attract women and younger recruits to the industry if they see employers taking steps to support the wellbeing of their employees.
From a productivity standpoint, robots can enable workers to spend less time completing strenuous tasks such as overhead drilling, allowing them to focus on other jobs that are less demanding on the body. The Hilti Jaibot uses pre-set data from BIM (Building Information Modelling) to mark and drill thousands of holes for ceiling installations, freeing up the workforce so other tasks are seen to quicker. The speed in which these tasks are completed is incomparable too, with repetitive movements undertaken with ease – removing any need for downtime or breaks.
Laser technology can also be used to transform traditional layout methods, by significantly increasing the number of layout points performed each day. Not only does this remote solution require fewer people, but it leaves less room for human error – potentially saving companies hours of labour that could jeopardise deadlines.
By introducing robots and automation systems to complement and support the workforce, construction businesses could expect to boost productivity and their profit margins. If technological advances develop at the same rate as in recent decades, there is no doubt that robotics and human augmentation systems will play a key role within the construction industry.
While many agree that machines will never replace humans in complex or skilled tasks, it is important to embrace the significant benefits that can arise from these innovations – a workforce that is not only safer and more productive, but one that encourages diversity of all ages and genders.
Hilti’s EXO-01 is a passive exoskeleton that augments the wearer’s own strength, helping to cut down on overexertion injuries, and to reduce the need for rest breaks and sick leave during construction work, the manufacturer says. As it weighs under 2 kg, it can help delay arm/ shoulder muscle fatigue during long periods of overhead work. It also enables freedom of movement – providing dynamic support without restricting the range of motion of arm and torso.
There are no batteries required, no power source to charge and no motors to maintain, the manufacturer adds. The Jaibot (below) is a semi-autonomous ceiling drilling robot, which uses a digital plan (such as from BIM data) to take over project execution – and the same data can be used to track the progress and status of the installation project. As the robot marks and then drills the holes according to the plan, it helps to relieve the construction worker of strenuous and repetitive tasks such as overhead drilling, Hilti says.
The Jaibot is fully cordless and can work for up to 8 hours between charges. It incorporates a built-in dust removal and marking system and is controlled by an intelligent system that doesn’t require expert skills to operate, the manufacturer adds.
By using BIM data to direct the robot, the contractor can ensure a seamless and efficient process throughout the job. The construction robot will be able to drill thousands of holes autonomously according to the digital drilling plan – resulting in far greater drilling accuracy from the digitised process, the firm notes.