There have been several factors contributing to construction’s increased interest in automation technology in recent years. The labor shortage is perhaps the most obvious, with companies facing increasing demand while coping with a diminished labor pool. Maximizing efficiency is, of course, another motivating factor. But perhaps the biggest benefit to companies is making existing workers’ jobs a little easier and safer.
Gage Brothers, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based concrete manufacturer specializing in precast concrete panels, bridge girders and more, recently completed its first-ever automated concrete pour at its brand new plant, The Sioux Falls Argus Leader wrote. The plant, which opened in January, was designed to streamline the company’s manufacturing process while also reducing the physical burden on its workers as much as possible.
“Automation will empower our workforce by streamlining processes and helping them to do their jobs more efficiently.”
“Automation will empower our workforce by streamlining processes and helping them to do their jobs more efficiently,” Tom Kelley, President and CEO of Gage Brothers told the Argus Leader. “I believe this technology will not only make jobs easier, it will also take away many mundane tasks which will create opportunities for more flexible and fulfilling work.”
Human ingenuity and problem solving are difficult to replicate with artificial intelligence, but for certain repetitive tasks it makes more sense for a machine to step in rather than subjecting workers undue wear and tear on their bodies.
“Where is someone doing the same thing over and over again where we can apply a robot to assist that person and either take the physical strain out of their work or increase the speed at which they’re able to work?” Scott Peters, CEO of Construction Robotics said in a recent webinar.
Construction Robotics is the company behind the Semi-Autonomous Mason, or SAM, a $400,000 bricklaying robot that can lay around 3,000 bricks in a single 8-hour shift. The company also developed the Material Unit Lift Enhancer (MULE), a lift-assist device that lets workers effortlessly move objects weighing up to 135 pounds. Both devices leverage artificial intelligence to enhance worker safety and productivity. The company is obviously bullish about the future of automation in construction.
Gage Brothers’ $40 million plant was the culmination of more than a year of planning and preparation. The company sourced parts for its autonomous pouring system from around the world, from as far away as Italy, Germany, Spain and Dubai.
It will feature so-called “flying buckets,” automated concrete pourers mounted on ceiling tracks that bring the material to designated pouring stations around the plant, reducing delivery time by about a third, Argus Leader wrote. The plant’s automated rebar-bending machine and hydraulic formwork systems will allow it to improve efficiency while reducing strain on workers’ bodies. The company told Argus Leader the new plant will enable them to boost capacity by 60% while only adding 20% to its roster of workers. The company currently employs around 250 people.
The new plant will enable them to boost capacity by 60% while only adding 20% to its roster of workers.
The facility will not only help spare human workers some of the more physically taxing labor, it will enable the company to conduct nearly all of its precast concrete production on-site, compared to just 65% at their previous location.
Gage Brothers’ plant is the latest in a long streak of concrete manufacturers automating parts of their operations. Back in 2014, Minnesota-based Molin Concrete Products converted a conventional production plant to a carousel system, which allows human workers to remain in place while it whisks pallets around to different stations. It even handles cleanup and setting up the plant for the next day.
It can be costly and time-consuming to pivot so dramatically in how day-to-day operations are performed, but it’s an investment that ultimately pays off, Matthew Westgaard, Molin’s Vice President of Manufacturing told the National Precast Concrete Association.
“When we looked at automation as a long-term investment for the organization, weighing it against quality defects, safety hazards and risks, work comp claims and the challenge of limited tradesmen, it was a much easier decision.”