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由Construction Robotics公司制造的MULE的机器人,可以拿起沉重的混凝土砌块。图片来源:Courtesy of Construction Robotics

Along the banks of Lake Michigan, 20 masons lay bricks for a huge dorm, as big as three football fields, at the Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois. Compared with those in years past, these workers are doing far less laying and “buttering” and, instead, are focused on quality and on cleaning up mortar joints.

A robot named SAM handles the real grunt work.

SAM, a clawlike metal arm extending from a cage, moves back and forth along the walls, buttering and layering a brick every eight to 12 seconds. Nearby, another robot called MULE uses a burly 12-foot arm to lift heavy cement blocks for workers, who then guide them into place.

Neither bot takes sick days or gets sore muscles, and both can work around the clock. “It’s all about reliability and certainty that the job will get done,” says Tyler Shawcross, senior project manager at Clark Construction, the general contracting giant co-overseeing the Navy project.

These days, reliability is a big issue in the construction industry, responsible for nearly $10 trillion in global spending annually. The vast majority of large construction projects go over budget and take 20% longer than expected, according to consulting firm McKinsey.

The problem is partly owing to a labor shortage. In August, 7.1 million construction jobs went unfilled, and 80% of construction companies say they struggle to recruit and hire people, according to a survey by software firm Autodesk and Associated General Contractors of America.

Construction work—whether building bridges, roads, or homes—is dirty, physical, and dangerous. The sector is among the leaders in workplace fatalities, with 965 job-site deaths in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Investors think technology can fix some of the construction industry’s downsides. Last year they pumped $3.1 billion into tech startups focused on everything from construction-scheduling software to factories that churn out prefab housing to robots like SAM.

“In the last three years, there’s been a big transformation,” says Scott Peters, cofounder of Construction Robotics, based in Victor, N.Y., and maker of the SAM and MULE robots. “Most people understand change is needed.”

But with low profit margins, high risk, and tight timelines, the construction industry is notoriously cautious. Adding new technology requires contractors to rethink how they do their work, and that adds to the cost and risk.

“If there’s an accident, who is at fault?” says Jose Luis Blanco, a partner at McKinsey. “No one wants to be the first one when it goes south.”

The push to use robots is, of course, still in its early days. Although the technology exists for certain kinds of construction work, it isn’t there for electrical work and carpentry, which require more finesse. Price is also a major stumbling block. The robots sold by Construction Robotics, for example, cost $75,000 to $500,000.

Even if construction executives favor new technologies, getting everyone else on board, from foremen to frontline workers, can be difficult, says Peters. Masons, for instance, had some misgivings about the SAM bricklaying robot when it was unveiled at a trade show in 2015 because some of them feared losing their jobs. “You got some people who were super excited and other people who were scared to death,” Peters says.

MULE has had a warmer welcome from the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. Its robotic arm can quickly lift tools, stones, and concrete panels of up to 135 pounds, eliminating physical strain on human workers.

“SAM is a little bit different,” says Bob Arnold, the national director of the union’s arm responsible for job training, “because they feel that it’s replacing them, and, in a way, it could.”

Despite those mixed feelings, the union started training its members to use the machines. Over the past three years, Construction Robotics has deployed its technology on 165 job sites in three countries.

Other companies are also trying to gain traction with their construction-focused robots. Hadrian X, by FBR in Australia, builds walls for a complete home in a single day using bricks that are 12 times as large as traditional ones. Meanwhile, Toggle, in New York, makes five-foot-tall robots that can lift heavy steel rebar used in concrete construction and manipulate it, while humans handle the final touches.

A host of Bay Area startups are also getting in on the act. Doxel builds autonomous robots and drones with 3D vision and artificial intelligence that roll around and fly over job sites, inspecting how much plumbing work has been done and whether it was done correctly. Ekso Bionics makes robotic vests that support a worker’s arms for jobs like drilling or installing piping overhead. It also sells a robotic arm that makes it easier for workers to use heavy tools, reducing fatigue and injury. And Dusty Robotics makes small autonomous bots that roll around construction sites and mark lines on concrete floors that indicate the location of walls and infrastructure, based on construction documents.

Few companies are trying anything as ambitious as San Francisco startup Built Robotics. It sells autonomous technology for bulldozers and other heavy equipment. The tech can enable a Caterpillar tractor, among others, to move dirt and lift pallets of wood—all without anyone in the cab.




这两个机器人可从早忙到晚,从不请病假,也不会累。负责海军项目的大型通用承包商Clark Construction公司的高级项目经理泰勒·肖克罗斯表示:“说到底就是可靠性以及完成这项工作的确定性。”


造成这个问题的部分原因是劳动力短缺。软件公司欧特克和美国通用承包商协会(Associated General Contractors of America)进行的调查显示,今年8月,建筑行业有710万个空缺职位,而且有80%的建筑公司表示很难招到人。



Construction Robotics公司的总部设在纽约州维克托镇,是机器人SAM和MULE的制造商。该公司的联合创始人斯科特·彼得斯说:“过去三年,情况有了很大的改变。”



当然,对机器人应用的推动仍然处于初期阶段。虽然某些种类的建筑工作已经可以使用这项技术,但精细度要求更高的电工和木工还不行。价格是另外一个主要绊脚石。比如,Construction Robotics公司的机器人售价为7.5万美元到50万美元。


美国和加拿大手工工人行业组织 “国际砌砖工人和相关工艺工人联合会”(International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers)对MULE的态度较为热情。MULE的机械臂可以迅速举起不超过135磅(约65.3千克)的工具、石块和混凝土板,从而让工人不再受体力的限制。


尽管人们感觉各异,但国际砌砖工人和相关工艺工人联合会已经开始培训它的成员使用这些机器。三年来,Construction Robotics公司的技术已经在三个国家的165处建筑工地上得到了应用。

其他公司也想让自己的建筑型机器人变成热门产品。澳大利亚公司FBR制造的Hadrian X可以在一天内建起一座完整住宅的墙壁,所用的砖块尺寸是传统砖块的12倍。同时,纽约公司Toggle推出的5英尺(约1.5米)高机器人可以举起沉重的混凝土工程钢筋并进行处理,工人只需负责最后的施工步骤。

一批位于旧金山湾区的初创公司也在采取行动。Doxel制造的自动化机器人和无人机拥有三维视觉和人工智能,可以在工地行走或飞行,检查管道施工进度以及是否存在缺陷。Ekso Bionics制造的机械外骨骼可以在头顶钻孔或安装管道这样的工作中支撑工人的胳膊,该公司的另一种机械臂能够帮助工人更轻松地使用沉重工具,从而减少疲劳和受伤的情况。Dusty Robotics制造的小型自动化机器人可以在建筑工地四处移动,并且按照图纸在混凝土楼面上标出墙壁和基础设施的位置。

很少有公司像旧金山初创企业Built Robotics那样尝试“大目标”。这家公司为推土机等重型设备提供自动化技术。比如,它的技术可以让卡特彼勒的牵引车移走土方或者举起木制托架,而且不需要任何人工干预。

Built Robotics公司的技术让反铲式挖掘机等重型机械实现了自动作业,而且理论上还可以逐步提高自身的作业水平。图片来源:Courtesy of Built Robotics

The “brains”—a combination of sensors, intelligence, and cameras—are affixed atop the vehicle’s cab inside what looks like a car luggage carrier. Software engineers must work with on-site contractors, who pay a monthly fee for the technology, to program the autonomous guidance system for specific jobs.

Geofences—which tell the computer the physical boundaries of a job site—and remote kill buttons keep the vehicles from going awry. Over time, with the help of machine learning that analyzes their work, the vehicles are supposed to get smarter.

Mortenson, a large contracting firm, is using Built’s autonomous technology on tractors that move dirt and build roads at five wind farms in rural Texas, Kansas, and eastern Colorado. Covering 100 square miles or more, the wind farms are ideal places for testing such new technology, says Eric Sellman, a Mortenson vice president.

“The robots keep getting better and better, and smarter and faster,” he says.

This technology, Sellman says, makes job sites safer by letting construction crews stay clear of danger while they focus on other tasks, such as planning. Workers are also assigned to oversee the bulldozers, often monitoring several machines at once, and then verifying whether they’ve done a good job.

Sellman hopes that robots will ultimately become a recruiting tool, encouraging more young people to pursue careers in construction.

“There isn’t any rule book yet on how robots and people will work together,” Sellman says. “But we know we need to start teaching our people the skills now to prepare for a future where we work differently and work smarter.”



大型承包商Mortenson把Built Robotics公司的自动化技术用在了牵引车上,而这些机械正在得克萨斯、堪萨斯以及科罗拉多东部农村地区的五座风电场移动土方并修筑道路。Mortenson的副总裁埃里克·塞尔曼说,这些风电场的面积都达到或超过了100平方英里(约259平方千米),是测试此类新技术的理想场所。







Robots Cement Their Place in Construction

Startups are working to automate different jobs within the building industry. Here are a few examples.



图片来源:Courtesy of Fastbrick Robotics


This company’s Hadrian X robot has a mechanical arm mounted on a truck that builds walls faster than humans, with bricks that are 12 times as big as traditional ones.


该公司的Hadrian X机器人拥有安装在卡车上的机械臂,它砌墙的速度比人快,使用的砖块尺寸是传统砖块的12倍。

图片来源:Courtesy of Ekso Bionics

EkSo Bionics


图片来源:Courtesy of Built Robotics

Built Robotics







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