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ABB Robotics is driving automation in the construction industry with new robotic automation solutions to address key challenges, including the need for more affordable and environmentally friendly housing and to reduce the environmental impact of construction, amidst a labour and skills shortage.

Robotic automation offers huge potential to enhance productivity, efficiency and manufacturing flexibility throughout the construction industry, including automating the fabrication of modular homes and building components off-site, robotic welding and material handling on building sites and robot 3D printing of houses and customised structures, a release said.

“With so few construction businesses using automation today, there’s huge potential for us to transform the industry through robotics,” ABB’s Robotics & Discrete Automation Business Area President Sami Atiya said.

“Unlike building cars or assembling electronics, many techniques used in construction haven’t changed for generations, so we are developing new solutions to address key industry challenges,” he added.

“This new customer segment will broaden our portfolio as part of a wider strategy to accelerate expansion in high-growth segments including electronics, healthcare, consumer goods, logistics and food and beverage, to meet the growing demand for automation across multiple industries,” Atiya added.

In a global survey commissioned by ABB of 1900 large and small construction businesses in Europe, the US and China, 91% said they face a skills crisis over the next 10 years, with 44% saying they struggle to recruit for construction jobs.

Improving health and safety on building sites was a priority for 42% and the same percentage said the environment is a key driver for industry change.

About 81% of construction businesses said they will introduce or increase the use of robotics and automation in the next decade, while today only a handful of businesses benefit from robotics.

In the survey, only 55% of construction companies say they use robots, compared with 84% in Automotive and 79% in Manufacturing.

Industry forecasts for the total value of the global construction industry predict it will rise by 85% to $15.5 trillion worldwide by 2030, while ABB Robotics’ internal analysis of the market potential for robotic automation over the next 10 years is for high double digit growth rate in key sectors of construction including pre-fabrication and 3D printing.

Robots enabling a new approach

With the industry facing increased environmental regulation and the need for more cost-effective buildings, robotic automation reduces waste by improving quality and consistency, which is significant when it’s estimated that up to a quarter of material transported to a building site leaves as waste.

With automation and digital solutions, builders can also design waste out at the beginning of a project through effective building design and construction processes.

With more than 200,000 vacancies for low and high-skilled workers in the EU alone in Q2 2020, the industry labour shortage is a growing issue, with younger people put off construction careers by perceptions that it is a dangerous occupation.

Construction workers account for around 30% of workplace injuries and are up to four times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident vs. other sectors, with an estimated 108,000 fatalities every year worldwide.

Robots can make construction safer by handling large and heavy loads, working in unsafe spaces and enabling new, safer methods of construction. Using robots for the repetitive and dangerous tasks that people increasingly don’t want to do means automation can help support the industry’s labour and skills crisis and make construction careers more appealing to young people.

“A new focus on health, safety and sustainability are catalysts for investment in robotics, while the shrinking pool of skilled labour means the construction industry needs robots to help keep pace with the challenges of urbanisation and climate change,” added Atiya.”

Innovation already in use

Designed to improve flexibility, productivity and quality, pilot projects include the automated fabrication of timber roof supports with Autovol in Canada, the robotic installation of elevators with Schindler Lifts and the robotic automation of Intelligent City’s production of prefabricated modular homes, which has increased production efficiency by 15% and speed by 38%, while reducing waste by 30%.

ABB is also working with several leading universities to co-develop new automated construction technologies including ETH Zurich, a leading research university in Switzerland.

At ETH, ABB is supporting research in the field of robotics fabrication in architecture and construction and has helped establish the world’s first laboratory for collaborative robotic digital fabrication in architecture, hosted at the ETH’s Institute of Technology in Architecture.

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