由Construction Robotics公司制造的MULE的機器人,可以拿起沉重的混凝土砌塊。圖片來源︰Courtesy of Construction Robotics




這兩個機器人可從早忙到晚,從不請病假,也不會累。負責海軍項目的大型通用承包商Clark Construction公司的高級項目經理泰勒?肖克羅斯表示︰“說到底就是可靠性以及完成這項工作的確定性。”


造成這個問題的部分原因是勞動力短缺。軟件公司歐特克和美國通用承包商協會(Associated General Contractors of America)進行的調查顯示,今年8月,建築行業有710萬個空缺職位,而且有80%的建築公司表示很難招到人。



Construction Robotics公司的總部設在紐約州維克托鎮,是機器人SAM和MULE的制造商。該公司的聯合創始人斯科特?彼得斯說︰“過去三年,情況有了很大的改變。”



當然,對機器人應用的推動仍然處于初期階段。雖然某些種類的建築工作已經可以使用這項技術,但精細度要求更高的電工和木工還不行。價格是另外一個主要絆腳石。比如,Construction Robotics公司的機器人售價為7.5萬美元到50萬美元。


美國和加拿大手工工人行業組織 “國際砌磚工人和相關工藝工人聯合會”(International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers)對MULE的態度較為熱情。MULE的機械臂可以迅速舉起不超過135磅(約65.3千克)的工具、石塊和混凝土板,從而讓工人不再受體力的限制。


盡管人們感覺各異,但國際砌磚工人和相關工藝工人聯合會已經開始培訓它的成員使用這些機器。三年來,Construction Robotics公司的技術已經在三個國家的165處建築工地上得到了應用。

其他公司也想讓自己的建築型機器人變成熱門產品。澳大利亞公司FBR制造的Hadrian X可以在一天內建起一座完整住宅的牆壁,所用的磚塊尺寸是傳統磚塊的12倍。同時,紐約公司Toggle推出的5英尺(約1.5米)高機器人可以舉起沉重的混凝土工程鋼筋並進行處理,工人只需負責最後的施工步驟。

一批位于舊金山灣區的初創公司也在采取行動。Doxel制造的自動化機器人和無人機擁有三維視覺和人工智能,可以在工地行走或飛行,檢查管道施工進度以及是否存在缺陷。Ekso Bionics制造的機械外骨骼可以在頭頂鑽孔或安裝管道這樣的工作中支撐工人的胳膊,該公司的另一種機械臂能夠幫助工人更輕松地使用沉重工具,從而減少疲勞和受傷的情況。Dusty Robotics制造的小型自動化機器人可以在建築工地四處移動,並且按照圖紙在混凝土樓面上標出牆壁和基礎設施的位置。

很少有公司像舊金山初創企業Built Robotics那樣嘗試“大目標”。這家公司為推土機等重型設備提供自動化技術。比如,它的技術可以讓卡特彼勒的牽引車移走土方或者舉起木制托架,而且不需要任何人工干預。

Along the banks of Lake Michigan, 20 masons lay bricks for a huge dorm, as big as three football fields, at the Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois. Compared with those in years past, these workers are doing far less laying and “buttering” and, instead, are focused on quality and on cleaning up mortar joints.

A robot named SAM handles the real grunt work.

SAM, a clawlike metal arm extending from a cage, moves back and forth along the walls, buttering and layering a brick every eight to 12 seconds. Nearby, another robot called MULE uses a burly 12-foot arm to lift heavy cement blocks for workers, who then guide them into place.

Neither bot takes sick days or gets sore muscles, and both can work around the clock. “It’s all about reliability and certainty that the job will get done,” says Tyler Shawcross, senior project manager at Clark Construction, the general contracting giant co-overseeing the Navy project.

These days, reliability is a big issue in the construction industry, responsible for nearly $10 trillion in global spending annually. The vast majority of large construction projects go over budget and take 20% longer than expected, according to consulting firm McKinsey.

The problem is partly owing to a labor shortage. In August, 7.1 million construction jobs went unfilled, and 80% of construction companies say they struggle to recruit and hire people, according to a survey by software firm Autodesk and Associated General Contractors of America.

Construction work—whether building bridges, roads, or homes—is dirty, physical, and dangerous. The sector is among the leaders in workplace fatalities, with 965 job-site deaths in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Investors think technology can fix some of the construction industry’s downsides. Last year they pumped $3.1 billion into tech startups focused on everything from construction-scheduling software to factories that churn out prefab housing to robots like SAM.

“In the last three years, there’s been a big transformation,” says Scott Peters, cofounder of Construction Robotics, based in Victor, N.Y., and maker of the SAM and MULE robots. “Most people understand change is needed.”

But with low profit margins, high risk, and tight timelines, the construction industry is notoriously cautious. Adding new technology requires contractors to rethink how they do their work, and that adds to the cost and risk.

“If there’s an accident, who is at fault?” says Jose Luis Blanco, a partner at McKinsey. “No one wants to be the first one when it goes south.”

The push to use robots is, of course, still in its early days. Although the technology exists for certain kinds of construction work, it isn’t there for electrical work and carpentry, which require more finesse. Price is also a major stumbling block. The robots sold by Construction Robotics, for example, cost $75,000 to $500,000.

Even if construction executives favor new technologies, getting everyone else on board, from foremen to frontline workers, can be difficult, says Peters. Masons, for instance, had some misgivings about the SAM bricklaying robot when it was unveiled at a trade show in 2015 because some of them feared losing their jobs. “You got some people who were super excited and other people who were scared to death,” Peters says.

MULE has had a warmer welcome from the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. Its robotic arm can quickly lift tools, stones, and concrete panels of up to 135 pounds, eliminating physical strain on human workers.

“SAM is a little bit different,” says Bob Arnold, the national director of the union’s arm responsible for job training, “because they feel that it’s replacing them, and, in a way, it could.”

Despite those mixed feelings, the union started training its members to use the machines. Over the past three years, Construction Robotics has deployed its technology on 165 job sites in three countries.

Other companies are also trying to gain traction with their construction-focused robots. Hadrian X, by FBR in Australia, builds walls for a complete home in a single day using bricks that are 12 times as large as traditional ones. Meanwhile, Toggle, in New York, makes five-foot-tall robots that can lift heavy steel rebar used in concrete construction and manipulate it, while humans handle the final touches.

A host of Bay Area startups are also getting in on the act. Doxel builds autonomous robots and drones with 3D vision and artificial intelligence that roll around and fly over job sites, inspecting how much plumbing work has been done and whether it was done correctly. Ekso Bionics makes robotic vests that support a worker’s arms for jobs like drilling or installing piping overhead. It also sells a robotic arm that makes it easier for workers to use heavy tools, reducing fatigue and injury. And Dusty Robotics makes small autonomous bots that roll around construction sites and mark lines on concrete floors that indicate the location of walls and infrastructure, based on construction documents.

Few companies are trying anything as ambitious as San Francisco startup Built Robotics. It sells autonomous technology for bulldozers and other heavy equipment. The tech can enable a Caterpillar tractor, among others, to move dirt and lift pallets of wood—all without anyone in the cab.

Built Robotics公司的技術讓反鏟式挖掘機等重型機械實現了自動作業,而且理論上還可以逐步提高自身的作業水平。圖片來源︰Courtesy of Built Robotics



大型承包商Mortenson把Built Robotics公司的自動化技術用在了牽引車上,而這些機械正在得克薩斯、堪薩斯以及科羅拉多東部農村地區的五座風電場移動土方並修築道路。Mortenson的副總裁埃里克?塞爾曼說,這些風電場的面積都達到或超過了100平方英里(約259平方千米),是測試此類新技術的理想場所。





The “brains”—a combination of sensors, intelligence, and cameras—are affixed atop the vehicle’s cab inside what looks like a car luggage carrier. Software engineers must work with on-site contractors, who pay a monthly fee for the technology, to program the autonomous guidance system for specific jobs.

Geofences—which tell the computer the physical boundaries of a job site—and remote kill buttons keep the vehicles from going awry. Over time, with the help of machine learning that analyzes their work, the vehicles are supposed to get smarter.

Mortenson, a large contracting firm, is using Built’s autonomous technology on tractors that move dirt and build roads at five wind farms in rural Texas, Kansas, and eastern Colorado. Covering 100 square miles or more, the wind farms are ideal places for testing such new technology, says Eric Sellman, a Mortenson vice president.

“The robots keep getting better and better, and smarter and faster,” he says.

This technology, Sellman says, makes job sites safer by letting construction crews stay clear of danger while they focus on other tasks, such as planning. Workers are also assigned to oversee the bulldozers, often monitoring several machines at once, and then verifying whether they’ve done a good job.

Sellman hopes that robots will ultimately become a recruiting tool, encouraging more young people to pursue careers in construction.

“There isn’t any rule book yet on how robots and people will work together,” Sellman says. “But we know we need to start teaching our people the skills now to prepare for a future where we work differently and work smarter.”





Robots Cement Their Place in Construction

Startups are working to automate different jobs within the building industry. Here are a few examples.

圖片來源︰Courtesy of Fastbrick Robotics


該公司的Hadrian X機器人擁有安裝在卡車上的機械臂,它砌牆的速度比人快,使用的磚塊尺寸是傳統磚塊的12倍。


This company’s Hadrian X robot has a mechanical arm mounted on a truck that builds walls faster than humans, with bricks that are 12 times as big as traditional ones.

圖片來源︰Courtesy of Ekso Bionics

EkSo Bionics


EkSo Bionics

Its vest supports workers’ arms and backs to provide superhero strength, reducing fatigue and injury. A separate robotic arm makes heavy tools seem weightless.

圖片來源︰Courtesy of Built Robotics

Built Robotics





Built Robotics

A system of cameras, GPS, sensors, and A.I. turns bulldozers and other heavy equipment into autonomous vehicles that can dig without human operators.

A version of this article appears in the December 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Bots Start Building.”