By Charles F Moreira, Editor
New COVID-19 cases discovered in Malaysia stubbornly remains between 2,000 and 3,000 per day and according to the Ministry of Health, many of these new cases were discovered in workplace clusters, school dormitories, prisons, detention centres and other places where people live and sleep in close quarters with little opportunity for physical distancing.
Whilst the media has focused on COVID-19 cases found amongst mostly migrant workers with glove makers such as Top Glove, however rarely mentioned are the cases found amongst mostly migrant workers on construction sites who also live and sleep in similar cramped conditions.
Following up on our series of articles – Can Malaysia’s Glove Makers Replace Manual Labour With Automation?, we now wonder whether Malaysia’s construction industry can be automated to greatly reduce its reliance on manual workers.
Firstly, unlike a factory floor where the layout and placement of production machinery, including robots, as well as production lines are in fixed and predictable locations, however the layout of a construction side is often unpredictable with the robot having to move and adapt to different layouts of parts of the building being constructed.
According to an article of 17 April 2018 on the Ann Arbor, Michigan, US based Association for Advanced Automation’s (A3) website, “The construction industry is one of the least automated industries that feature manual-intensive labour as a primary source of productivity. Whether it’s new commercial construction, renovation or demolition, robots don’t yet play a significant role in any step of a building’s lifecycle.”
“There are several new robots under development and in the early stages of deployment that could change this, however. As a highly unautomated industry, construction is poised for a robot revolution.”
The article went on to cite the unpredictable layout of construction sites as a major reason for the industry being late to automate: “Robots excel at repetitive tasks in a controlled environment. Construction sites could not be more opposite.”
“Robots need to be able to adapt to real-time variability in their environment with little to no reprogramming in order to be profitable and productive. This is difficult for robots to do, but a few different construction robots are taking on these historically challenging tasks.”
Different types of construction robots
Amongst the different types of construction robots with A3 sees a being about to be used in construction on a mass scale are a 3D-printing robot which can build large buildings on demand. This kind of robot has a mobile robotic which arm controls a 3D-printer and is driven by preprogrammed instructions to print out an entire structurally-safe building.
At the time of the article, 3D-printing was beginning to be used to build bridges and a 3D-printed bridge had been built in the Netherlands and A3 foresees that 3D-printing combined with industrial robots will be one of the most promising automation technologies in the industry.
Besides that are robots for brick-laying and masonry, as well as robots which can lay an entire street at a time, which dramatically improves the speed and quality of construction work.
Demolition robots were another type of robot about to go mainstream at the time. These are slower than manual demolition crews but far safer and cheaper when used to demolish concrete and structural components.
“As a highly unautomated industry, construction robots will have a major impact on the construction industry. As construction companies look to automate more and more tasks for the sake of efficiency and productivity, demand for construction robots will grow steadily”. A3 concluded.
On the worksite
The Victor, NY, US-based Construction Robotics was founded in 2007 to develop construction robots and one of its solutions, the Material Unit Lift Enhancer (Mule 135). which looks like a small crane, is basically a collaborative robot (cobot), which assists the human mason by picking up construction material such as bricks and blocks weighing up to 135 pounds (61.2 kg) and places it in the correct place guided by the mason.
Another product is Semi-Automated Mason (SAM) 100, which the company claims is the first commercially available bricklaying robot for onsite masonry construction.
According to a Robotics Business Review article of 28 November 2013, Scott Peters, vice president and co-founder of Construction Robotics and Zak Podkaminer, its IT and marketing manager began working SAM from 2007 and about six years later, the company demonstrated an alpha prototype of SAM on an actual building for Progressive Machine and Design, with human masons being invited to interact with the prototype and provide feedback which would be incorporated in the next model. The company expected to have three commercial SAM systems working on real building sites around mid-2014.
SAM 100 is a cobot, designed to be operated by one mason. It has wheels and a robotic arm, and is fed by bricks manually placed onto a conveyor and mortar manually poured into a hopper.
Bricks are placed in a conveyor that feeds SAM and mortar is poured into a hopper. SAM picks up a brick with its arm, holds it while the proper amount of mortar is applied, then sets the brick in place on the wall with the help of a laser and software that follows a CAD design showing the exact location of each brick. This enables it to build walls of different designs, including with windows and doors.
However, a human mason is still required to ensure that the bricks were placed correctly and to clean up excess motor which had been squeezed out.
“It’ll always need that assistance. There’s so much detail that goes into masonry walls that’s just something we’re not even looking to change,” said Podkaminer.
SAM’s purpose is to increase productivity by between 3 and 5 times, with less fatigue for masons by reducing lifting tasks by 80%.
Amongst its recent deployments, SAM was onsite at The University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers (Brighton Health Center South) in July 2017 and laid over 17,000 bricks; at the Erlanger Medical Office Building in Chattanooga, TN in May 2018 and laid over 25,000 bricks; and onsite at the POFF Federal Building in Roanoke, VA in July 2018 where it laid over 250,000 bricks.
In January 2018, the Illinois-based Midwest Economic Policy Institute a published results of a theoretical assessment of the potential economic impacts of a highly automated construction industry – The Potential Economic Consequences of a Highly Automated Construction Industry – What If Construction Becomes the Next Manufacturing? by Jill Manzo; Frank Manzo IV, MPP; and Robert Bruno, PhD, and how the potential consequences of the displacement of human labour in the construction industry upon the livelihoods of workers, families, and the U.S. economy over the next generation.
The executive summary highlighted that the share of capital intensity within the construction market increased by between 1.9 and 9.6 percentage points in five Midwestern states – namely, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin respectively between 1997 and 2015.
Automation has increased productivity, reduced costs, and improved quality, whilst labour shortages have driven contractors to utilise more machinery, equipment, and robots, which can lay more bricks, build more yards of road per day, and construct buildings in fewer days than human labour.
At the same time, labour costs, including wages and fringe benefits paid to construction workers have been declining as a share of total construction costs for decades.
About 49% of construction tasks can be automated, with estimated automation potential of 35% for labourers, 50% for carpenters, 42% for electricians, 50% for plumbers, and 88% for operating engineers.
Nearly 2.7 million construction workers in the US could be displaced or replaced by 2057, including 435,000 carpenters, 411,000 labourers, and 404,000 operating engineers.
The report went on to predict the socio-economic impact of automation in construction in terms of aggregate loss of income for displaced construction workers in the US and the Midwest as they have no choice but to accept lower paying jobs, and its resultant knock-on effects of reduced consumer demand, which could result in a loss of a total of 58,000 jobs across the five Midwestern states.
It went on to propose three public policy recommendations, including retraining and reskilling of workers; collaboration between states and local communities with educational institutions to invest in vocational training and re-training; and that as construction becomes more automated, lawmakers should consider taxing capital owned by contractors and investing the proceeds into young and displaced workers.
However, the scenario in Malaysia is different, where instead of automation, construction companies have relied mostly on migrant workers, so the adoption of automation would likely not result in job losses for many Malaysians, most of whom tend to shy away from such “dirty, dangerous and demeaning” jobs.
However, as long as migrant labour remains a cheap option, will construction companies have an incentive to automate?
We can only wait and see.