Ask the Architect

What are robots capable of?

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Q. I saw an online demonstration of how a robot was being trained to put ceiling and wall boards up and wondered, have you seen any other kinds of construction being done with robots? I’m concerned about seeing jobs taken away by machines. Can you tell me if this is going to happen in the near future, since we already have automated cars, etc.?

A.It seemed way beyond our comprehension that automation would replace so many different kinds of jobs, from manufacturing and food preparation to trucks, trains and even planes being unmanned, but it’s a reality. When we fly, computerization takes over and guides the aircraft, detecting turbulence and signaling ground control and other aircraft of its location. Our floors can be vacuumed while we’re out, the lawn mowed, and soon walls will be constructed and drywall hung, taped, spackled and painted without human hands.

Part of the reason this is happening is because technology is responding to the challenge, but beyond that, the cost of construction and a lack of trained workers is a driving force. Sensor technology is becoming more advanced virtually day to day. The ability of sensors to gather data on the shape, size and material makeup of a space is now allowing computers to map out a space, create an internal data diagram, determine the spacing the structure needs, and transmit the data to a mobile unit equipped with the ability to cut, align and attach each wall stud, nail and wallboard. Then another piece of equipment will roll into place, loaded with joint tape, compound and broad knives, able to create a uniformly smooth finish.

The training of construction personnel will change in the next decade, starting with large commercial building construction and trickling down to homes. Whether it will be universal remains to be seen, since do-it-yourselfers and big-box store suppliers will be slower to adapt, just like the slow evolution of saws that detect human flesh and shut down and screw guns that have gone from clunkers to ergonomically balanced variable speeds.

Large architectural firms with advanced computer design labs, such as Perkins and Will, have built and are experimenting with robots that are equipped with suction grippers, drills, saws and nail guns which can manipulate 2 x 4s into sophisticated, complex geometric construction with industrial precision. Another type of robotic construction already being deployed is 3D printing, which is used by window and door manufacturers and for other prefabricated materials such as fasteners, moldings and hardware.

The process of incorporating on-site robotics and off-site prefabrication started out slowly over the past two decades, but is gaining momentum as computers and sensing technology find their niche with a generation that is more adaptable and accepting of automation. The economic need to find more and more cost-effective ways to build, plus the desire to reduce hard work if a machine can do the task, has led us to this, and the trend will continue.

© 2019 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.