Mapping out the construction robotics market
When I first started diving into the construction industry, I did a lot of research to understand the existing players in the space, particularly other startups. What areas were hot? Which were relatively unexplored? I’m fascinated by the challenge of developing a new product for a new market, so I wanted to identify an area that wasn’t being actively explored by many existing companies, yet still has a solid value proposition.
The construction industry is mightily complex. Wikipedia lists 27 different trades, each of which specializes in one aspect of building construction. While electricians, plumbers, and carpenters are fairly well-known, trades also exist specifically for installing glass (glaziers), erecting structural steel (ironworkers), and operating heavy equipment such as excavators and cranes.
My research turned up a large number of construction robotics startups that are each focused on automating work done by a specific trade. This makes a lot of sense due to the way construction projects are organized. A general contractor (GC) acts as project manager, and enters into contract with a number of trade-specific subcontractors (“subs”) to perform the actual building work. Each sub’s share of the work usually rolls up into a single line item in the GC’s budget. If you are in the business of automating a specific trade, you have the option of either selling/licensing your product to the affected trade, or taking on the role of a subcontractor yourself and bidding for project work. Either way, the value of automation is fairly straightforward because it already exists as a line item on the budget.
The challenge with trying to automate a single trade is that skilled tradesmen are highly intelligent, capable workers whose jobs are very difficult to automate. Robotics technology is advancing each year, but we are still far from being able to develop robots that can mimic the dexterity of human hands or the good judgement of human cognition. I’m very impressed by all the trade-specific robotics companies out there, because I know they are tackling some serious technical challenges.
An alternative to trade-specific automation is to identify a simple, straightforward task that is normally performed by multiple trades in the construction industry, but does not require full human intelligence. Automating tasks is easier than automating trades, given the capabilities of today’s robotics technology.
Autonomous data capture and analysis is a great example of a valuable task. A single billion-dollar construction project might have thousands of laborers working on the site each day. Coordinating all of that work -- and making sure that the work is being done correctly, according to spec -- is a gargantuan challenge. To capitalize on this opportunity, many construction robotics startups are leveraging autonomous drones and other connected hardware to collect and process large amounts of imagery. This imagery enables construction managers to oversee progress and identify problems sooner, before they become expensive to fix.
There are other simple tasks that are ripe for automation on construction sites, but I’ll leave you to conduct your own research. In the meantime, here is my own map of the market showing some of what I’ve discovered thus far.
What do you think of this analysis? Have I missed your favorite construction robotics startup? Let me know in the comments below.