Editorial: March of the robots
Patrick FlanneryFeatures Business Intelligence
As a big science fiction nerd and a guy who spent a decade selling machine tools, I’m fascinated with robots. Not so much the Terminator-style robots that look like humans, but the real-world robots that work in factories. The distinction between a piece of automated machinery and a “robot” can be hard to define, but we generally drew the line where a machine could be reprogrammed to perform different tasks rather than being dedicated to doing just one thing.
So a pick-and-place with a specialized fixture that takes an auto panel off a rack and sticks it on a frame would be “automation,” while the welding robot that can be programmed to change what it does depending on the vehicle coming down the line would be a “robot.”
Automation on construction sites is impractical for a bunch of reasons. Construction jobs end after a few weeks or months, making the time spent to set up and program a dedicated machine cost-prohibitive. Automation requires tasks that need to be performed the same every time within tight parameters of where the workpiece will be and how it is positioned. There are not many tasks on a construction site that fit this criterion, so a human hand and eye are still needed to judge how to position materials in an environment with a lot of variables. Some of those variables include cold, heat and moisture – any of which can wreak havoc with an automated process.
Robotics, however, could at least theoretically address most of these issues. A machine with a general design that has an interface designed for easy programming for different tasks could perform a lot of tasks in construction. Unloading a truck is one. Pouring concrete may be another. Tamping or rolling a specified area would seem to be within the capabilities of today’s robots. Maybe even laying masonry? If driverless cars are possible, then it seems the processing power exists to deal with variables of this limited complexity.
The basic form of the construction robots of the future is already apparent in many of the new machines that appeared at shows across the country this spring. Telehandlers increase in flexibility each year, with wider varieties of attachments, higher reach and load capacities and better flexibility in the booms and joints. We’ve covered remotely operated demolition machines in this magazine that can reach into just about any location with their articulated arms to operate breakers, drills or concrete-pouring nozzles. This equipment already has the form of a robot, now all it needs is the brains. For the first time in history, we are close to being able to give these machines the brains they need for the job.
Remote-operated construction machinery is already a good item for rental store because its upfront cost would deter most small contractors and it offers an enhanced level of safety for the operator. But programmable robots capable of carrying out some tasks independently would open up a whole new level of potential service for rental stores to offer. The contractor could rent, say, a robotic roller for the weekend to do a new parking lot. In addition to providing the machine, you also provide the skilled programmer who will set up the machine to work all weekend without a driver. The contractor doesn’t have to hire a driver or programmer, and you get to charge for your programmer’s time.
No question, I’m off in outer space here. The technology above doesn’t exist yet, and safety authorities would certainly be taking a close look at machinery that operates itself.
But perhaps it starts with a few simple subroutines that a present-day automated breaker, for instance, could carry out without an operator having to direct every motion. We can always dream.
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