How robots are taking BIM to the next level

Abstract image of Industry 4.0 - robots and automation
Image: Phuttaphat Tipsana | Dreamstime.com

Health and safety and digital twins are two key areas in which robots and automation can drive improvements, according to Pete Felton of The National Robotarium.

From its early use on films such as Rocky, Marathon Man and The Shining through to its modern appearances at the side of football matches and other sporting clashes, the Steadicam has revolutionised the life of camera operators, removing much of the strain of maneuvring heavy equipment from their shoulders and arms. Soon, construction workers should also be benefitting from similar assisted technology.

In the same way that the Steadicam rig helps operators by spreading the weight of cameras, batteries and monitors throughout their core, engineers are developing systems to aid construction workers in handling heavy tools. Rather than putting the pressure on workers’ shoulders or arms, these robotic structures should help to spread the load, cutting down on the number of potential workplace injuries.

Other robotic systems are already making a difference on construction sites. Hilti’s Jaibot semi-autonomous drilling robot, for example, is harnessing data from BIM systems to carry out mechanical, electrical, and plumbing installation tasks such as overhead drilling to improve productivity and reduce the strain on human workers.

Helping to narrow the skills gap

That focus on health and safety is one of the key areas in which robotics and automation can help to remove people from dangerous and dirty jobs and improve the quality of life for everyone. Robots and people can work side by side in safety.

This isn’t about robots taking people’s jobs. There’s a massive skills shortage in the construction industry, so if we can take workers away from mundane and repetitive jobs and use robots instead, then those workers can be retrained to carry out more skilled tasks, adding greater value to projects and giving them more job satisfaction.

Bricklaying machines don’t work well because people are better suited to that type of skilled work. But, in the pre-construction phase, robots could assemble panels and other prefabricated materials, freeing up people to do tasks on site that require finer skills – such as sealing, plumbing or installing electrics – which are much harder for robots.

Harnessing the power of digital twins

Here at The National Robotarium, based at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, we know that it’s no good talking the talk if we don’t walk the walk as well. That’s why we used a Spot robot – built by Boston Dynamics and kitted out with sensors by our team – to inspect our building site at night when construction was underway on our flagship facility.

This type of simultaneous localisation and mapping work is going to become even more important when stricter building regulations are introduced throughout the UK. Robots can help to gather the data that will be needed to prove that construction projects comply with environmental regulations. If robots don’t carry out this type of work, then construction companies will need to employ people, at significant expense, to carry out mundane tasks such as checking sealant and auditing insulation.

Ultimately, using robots to gather data will enable the creation of digital twins while office blocks and industrial projects are being constructed, creating an accurate record of where each wire, cable, pipe and duct is situated. These digital twins can then be passed on by the builder to the facilities manager, making the maintenance of properties much easier and creating a digital link from the architect to the maintenance staff.

Widening opportunities for export success

As well as improving conditions for workers and increasing productivity in the UK, greater use of robotics and automation could also give an economic boost to Britain through exports. If British construction companies harness the power of robots, then the technologies they create and the expertise they develop could be exported to markets throughout the world.

The building boom across the Gulf States and the wider Middle East is set to be eclipsed by the growth of the affluent middle classes in India, with the resulting need for buildings that rapid urbanisation will bring. Such growth can only be achieved in an environmentally sustainable way if robotics and automation are harnessed throughout the construction process, from prefabrication through to retrofitting of existing buildings to ensure they keep dwellers cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

BIM and automation go hand-in-hand when it comes to energy efficiency, both for cooling systems and heating systems, making sure that buildings consume as little power as possible. If we get these factors correct in the UK, then we can export that expertise around the world.

Health and safety and digital twinning are just two of the exciting areas in which robots can make a difference to building projects. But our engineers are always looking to work with staff at the sharp end of the construction industry to come up with new ideas – that’s why the doors at The National Robotarium are always open for collaborations.

Pete Felton is business development executive at The National Robotarium.

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