Why construction robotics

Tessa Lau
December 20, 2018

Many people ask me why I decided to found a construction robotics company. “Did you know anything about construction before you started?” they ask. “I didn’t know anything about construction,” I say. “But I did remodel my house.”

Over the past six years I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from some of the world’s best roboticists at two of the most innovative robotics companies in the world.  At Savioke I led teams to build and scale a fleet of nearly a hundred autonomous delivery robots serving the needs of hotels. At Willow Garage, I worked with the people who built the popular Robot Operating System. At both companies, we debated many different application domains for robotics, including service industries like hospitality, logistics, and healthcare, and we have seen startups in those industries flourish. Yet I wondered whether there were other industries where labor was also highly valued, but underserved by automation.

At the same time that I was asking all these questions, I was in the middle of remodeling my home. It was amazing to watch the progress. A few times a week we’d stop by and watch excitedly as walls were taken down, new walls put up, and fixtures started to appear.

Yet what struck me most about the process was how it was all done by people: very skilled, hardworking, intelligent people. Every day, a crew would gather on our construction site with handheld power tools. There was a big sheaf of paper with the plans drawn out, which was consulted frequently and became dog-eared with use. Even though our crew was very meticulous, we still caught several errors such as a wall being framed in the wrong place, or a heating vent coming up through the floor a few inches short of where it should be. I would later learn that these types of mistakes are common on construction projects; the cost of rework is factored in to the project budget.

We live in a society where the electronics we use on a daily basis are mass-produced in factories by robots, yet the places where we live and work are assembled one-at-a-time by people with hand tools, consulting paper plans and doing math in their head, making the occasional mistake.

Watching this process, I began to believe that robotics and AI could significantly improve the speed and quality of construction projects. But construction is very complex, with many specialized trades. Where should we start?

That’s when I started digging into every aspect of the construction industry and talking to everyone I could find who knew anything about construction. The general contractor who was coordinating my home remodel, an avid technology buff, was very encouraging. “Bring me some robots and we can make lots of money!” he said.

The numbers also painted a great picture. I discovered that unlike industries such as manufacturing, which have seen consistent productivity growth due to process automation, productivity in the construction industry has actually declined over the past few decades. Construction managers told me that labor costs make up a significant percentage of total cost (up to 50-70%, in some trades). The average age of the construction workforce is 41, and anecdotally people were telling me that workers were switching jobs at 50 because their bodies just couldn’t handle the work anymore. At the same time, young people aren’t entering the workforce; younger construction workers declined by 30% in the decade leading up to 2016. Even aside from labor shortages, rework due to errors and miscommunication costs US construction companies an estimated $65B per year.

Construction is an enormous, labor-dominated market. Leveraging robotics, we will develop smarter tools that boost productivity of the craft workforce and transform the industry from the current bespoke, one-at-a-time manufacturing process towards a more consistent, repeatable process with higher quality products.

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Tessa Lau
December 20, 2018
3 min read