The robot invasion is coming

3D printing, laser cutting and CNC milling are digital production methods that have become increasingly more widespread in the past years. These technologies have already seen some degree of implementation in construction. Laser cutting and CNC milling are already being used in lots of projects (see for example the beautiful Reindeer Centre Pavillion), although mostly for architectural details and less for production of structural components projects. 3D printing of building components has not yet been used on a large scale, although there are already some promising ventures underway such as the Chinese company that has produced 10 small houses with a concrete 3d printer and Skanska's plans for advanced geometry concrete production.

These production methods are already making the production of advanced geometry construction components cheaper. They are gradually reducing the amount of manpower needed per component and could ultimately far in the future remove the need for manpower altogether.

The Helsingør Motorway: Infraworks model

Digital production in earthworks

I happen to work in a field in which digital production has been implemented to a much larger degree than in building construction, namely Earthworks.

In Denmark, machine guidance and automated machine control has become the standard way of doing earthworks. Most work is carried out on the basis of a digital 3D model. The process may not be as fully automated as the one in a 3D printer or a laser cutter, there is still a middle man between the designer and the finished product. The machine operator is still an integral part of the process - for now.

Not all types of work are equally automated. The level of automation depends on the type of work being carried out and what type of machinery is being used for production. The blades on graders and bulldozers can for example be fully automated requiring little input from the operator, while excavators require more of their operators, who receive cues from a 3D model and machine guidance system to arrived at the correct elevation.

The Robots are coming

Google, Volvo, Tesla and most automotive manufacturers are already well on way to putting self-driving cars on the roads permanently. With time and as the legal environment adapts to unmanned systems, more and more processes will be automated. Construction machinery will join self-driving cars in ridding them selves of operators.

The change is starting to happen within the mining and agriculture fields, as these are ideal to begin the implementation of unmanned systems. Huge areas can be designated to the machines with little risk of inadvertently harming humans. Semi-automated unmanned solutions have already been implemented within the mining and agriculture sector where a single operator can either monitor or remotely control multiple excavators and dumpers.

As automation becomes more widespread, the reliance on 3D models will increase. The unmanned systems will not be as good at filling in the blanks as human operators (at least not initially). It will therefore be necessary to model projects in higher detail in order for a project to be solely produced by unmanned systems.

It is not unreasonable to expect that vehicles such as dumpers will get data from terrain models to optimize the wayfinding and choose a suitable driving style for the terrain. Each unmanned dumper would receive routing orders based on a model of the earthworks, to minimize the kilometer-tonnage, reducing cost and environmental impact.

Like in other fields vulnerable to automation, the move to unmanned systems will require a change in culture. It will require new competences from foremen and project managers on site, not to mention the machine operators. There will be a heavier reliance on models and this will require more of the designers. There will be a need to educate designers and buyers about the increased reliance on 3D models in order to reap the benefit of the unmanned systems. Perhaps this will result in more design-build contracts, by aligning the interests of designers and contractors with the increased reliance on models, which so far, have not been recognized as the contractual basis for projects.

There will be lots of changes, not all of which can be foreseen. We might have 5 years, 10 or 15 years before the robots come, but they will come. It is inevitable. Resistance is futile.