The Robots Are Coming
Or more accurately, they’re already here, and construction work will never be the same.
In response to inexorable demographic and regulatory macro-trends, construction jobsites are seeing an increasingly significant role played by robotics, telematics and remote-controlled machines, both above and below ground. Tasks that were routinely performed by gangs of workers armed with jack-hammers are a little harder to complete when those gangs of workers are retiring in droves. And sometimes the best response to tightened regulations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on workers’ exposure to silica dust is to remove them from the task altogether.
Or when recruiting millennials into the construction trades, doesn’t it make sense to hand them what amounts to video game controllers rather than shovels? How can contractors harness technology to address these challenges—an aging workforce, an ever greater focus on safety and reducing workman’s compensation costs, and a near crisis level of difficulty in attracting younger workers—and remain productive? Let’s examine just one area that will be familiar to anyone who has ever driven a car.
Imagine a deteriorating bridge. It shouldn’t be hard; there are over 65,000 of them in the United States rated as structurally deficient in the most recent federal National Bridge Inventory. In the old days, and too often today, banks of compressors power large teams of workers wielding pneumatic hammers, painstakingly chipping away at the decaying surface, being careful not to damage the rebar, which must remain in place, and always conscious of the risk of creating micro-fractures in the healthy concrete that remains. It is slow, arduous work and often results in expensive lost-time shoulder and back injuries. Silica dust is an additional hazard, and of course there is the danger of traffic in work zones.
Now imagine a robot, advancing steadily on rubber tracks, programmed to remove a set depth of concrete across a full lane while leaving the underlying lattice of rebar not only intact but descaled and cleaned, ready for the new concrete to be poured. The operator’s responsibility is limited largely to monitoring the process, and while there is still some labor involved to remove the loose aggregate, far less overall manpower is required.
These robots, which direct super high-pressure (35,000 psi) water through a specially designed ceramic nozzle onto the concrete surface, are capable of removing up to two cubic yards of concrete per hour, with minimal involvement from the operator. It is simply a matter of entering in the parameters of how much concrete to remove and the Aquajet hydrodemolition machine does the rest.
Like magic: improved productivity, a safer working environment and the kind of technology-based equipment that appeals to a younger workforce.
Such robots, and others like them, are transforming the landscape of construction and addressing some of the most entrenched challenges in the construction industry today. And as more esoteric robotic technology enters the mainstream, their capabilities will only grow.