Construction is among the least automated industries in the United States. And that’s a problem, because in an industry plagued by worker shortages, robots wouldn’t be displacing humans, they’d be filling in where there are no people to be found.
Researchers at ETH Zurich, a science-centric Swiss university, are trying to shore up the problem. On Thursday, the university released a video of a six foot tall robot working on the DFAB HOUSE, a digitally fabricated home researchers want to perfect and release by 2018.
In the video, the robot (directed, it should be noted, by humans) builds one of the DFAB HOUSE’s undulating walls from reinforced concrete. The bulky machine is mounted on rubber caterpillar tracks and uses a long pneumatic arm to connect steel-wire mesh into a frame that humans can fill with concrete to create a load-bearing wall in the DFAB house. The house is arranged with 3D printed designs and Internet of Things devices.
The DFAB HOUSE is one of few projects or concepts in construction that relies heavily on automation, which could be a welcome sign for the industry as a whole. In February 2017, some 200,000 American construction jobs were left open. Unlike other competitive industries where workers struggle to find a place, construction has trouble finding qualified workers to fill empty roles. And a McKinsey Global Institute report, also released in February noted that the productivity of those who are working in the field has been more or less stalled since the 1940s.
Incorporating more automated technology into the process could reduce costs and fill empty jobs. British construction firm Balfour Beatty is banking on this tech and others likely are, too. This week, the firm told construction magazine BuildingCo that someday soon, drones will send instructions to robots in the ground to maximize efficiency. Humans will still be involved, it anticipates, but remotely, relying on 3D visualizations and data collected on site to guide their work.
But there are obstacles in the way, especially in the United States. Like healthcare, another slow-changing industry, construction is heavily regulated, due to the safety risks it poses to people on construction sites. What’s more, drone data collection and robot workers will have to get better — and cheaper — before they can be adopted on a large scale.
The DAFB HOUSE efforts are certainly working with commercialization in mind, but right now they’re still mostly in an academic setting. Still, ETH is moving fast, by industry standards. In 2015, the same team revealed an automated brick-laying machine — and the new robot is a dramatic step up.
See also: Need a New House? Just Get a 3D Printer