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The construction and contracting industries came alive in 2018 with talk of jobsite automation and robotic workers. Technology announcements and demonstration projects propelled automation into one of the top trends for the year. New innovations emerged on what seemed like a weekly basis, sparking anticipation for what could be available soon — only not yet.
Construction Robotics, developer of automation and robotics for the construction industry, continues to make headway by introducing its SAM100 automated bricklayer onto more jobsites across the country. While a human bricklayer can place up to 500 bricks per day, SAM100 can place as many as 6,000 per day in standard brick patterns or soldier courses. As a bricklayer’s son, that pace still seems unimaginable. It’s a whole new level from what I experienced watching my dad growing up.
Human oversight and intervention are still needed for quality control, but it’s easy to see how this automation example could soon push our industry to the next level of productivity.
The latest 3D printers are using concrete and other construction materials to create structural elements and small houses for less cost and in less time. Drones also entered the picture with novel applications beyond simple camera attachments. Drones can now paint, tape, mud and even construct walls, improving efficiency and safety on the jobsite.
Humanoid robots also are appearing in interesting demonstrations. The HRP-5P from Japan’s Advanced Industrial Science and Technology Institute can carry, position and anchor drywall sheets. The robot’s goal is less efficiency and more filling a growing workforce gap as Japan continues to struggle with fewer workers entering the trades. The technology still has a long way to go but it illustrates the passion for merging automation, robotics and the construction industry.
Each of these automation innovations focuses on the jobsite, which is unfortunate. Make no mistake, automation is coming to the jobsite. But fabrication shops have long stood on the front lines of automation innovation, setting a model for jobsites to follow.
Fabrication shops create an ideal testbed for automation with computerized programs now permeating all levels of cutters, shapers and molders. Deploying an automated Watts-Mueller six-axis CNC pipe-cutter, for example, transformed how we work within McKinstry’s fabrication shop. These one-off automated tools, however, are far different from a comprehensive automation strategy. Do not fall victim to the latest shiny toy, working backward to find a problem to justify the purchase.
Automation must be a well-crafted strategic initiative. Technology innovations are being introduced at an amazing pace, making it hard to align strategy and key performance indicators with the latest possibilities. Simply put, you won’t be able to keep pace from day one. Instead, start by planning a solid foundation that can support future technology rollouts as your strategy and capabilities grow.
These technologies can change the entire flow of your fabrication shop. Don’t take on more than you can handle out of the gate. It should be an ongoing evolution that allows you to identify a problem, assess what’s possible, start slow and build over time for future growth.
Identify a problem
McKinstry believes that half of the cost incurred during commercial construction is wasted by process and resource inefficiency. We work tirelessly to eliminate waste from every step of the MEP contracting process.
During planning conversations last year, McKinstry engineering and fabrication teams brainstormed opportunities to increase efficiency through design and fabrication. It’s a resource-intensive process the company knows well. Different departments lead every step of the process using different systems, tools and resources. Waste and inefficiency lives in the transitions between these systems. An opportunity presented itself to solve the problem by digitizing and automating the workflow process.
So how do you automate data flow and fabrication across multiple departments and processes? If you dream it, our teams can find a way to make it work. In this case, the whiteboard session outlined a dream that relied on a central software platform to connect design software with inventory management, parts layout, cut lists and actual fabrication. Capabilities were sourced from across the organization and a team began to bring the plan to life.
We developed and began experimenting with internal software platforms after an extensive search in the marketplace yielded zero results that fit our specific requirements. The internal software platforms have been designed to automate mechanical system design, detailing and fabrication. The pilot aimed to significantly cut costs and timeframes before any individual system arrived at the jobsite. Here’s how it works:
Our process begins in Revit, where engineers design the mechanical systems and lay out all measurements, equipment needs and specifications. A centralized database stores the information, which enables design teams to query previous designs and specifications and find experts in the company who worked on similar projects.
Downstream, McKinstry’s detailers leverage AutoDesk’s Fabrication suite and CADmep to add the level of detail required to manufacture and fabricate the project. The manufacturing data is connected to a platform known internally as OMega, which relays the data to the fabrication shop for review, adjustment and execution.
In the fabrication shop, supervisors review each job to optimize inventory orders and job workflow. If steel or piping needs to be cut, specifications are routed to automated cutting tools that measure and execute each cut with precision. There is no need for the operator to measure or calculate any of the cuts manually. It’s all automated based on the approved engineered drawings and schematics.
McKinstry uses the Watts-Mueller CNC pipe-cutter and Tiger Stop systems for carbon steel, copper and cast iron. Hundreds of thousands of feet have been laid out, measured and cut so far. The process reduces costs, saves time and minimizes potential safety risks before any individual mechanical system leaves the fabrication shop for the jobsite.
To date, 99 percent of all carbon steel, copper and cast-iron jobs run through the automated process, cutting as much as 40 percent from labor costs associated with fabrication. Inventory costs also are reduced since the platform optimizes each cut list to eliminate as much waste as possible.
Build over time
The OMega platform will continue to expand, automating more processes and equipment over time. HVAC sheet metal and other materials will soon follow carbon steel, copper and cast iron.
The true transformation, however, comes with data. OMega will catalog a library of common items that can be ordered, fabricated and delivered based on proven, prespecified designs. OMega also will be able to optimize material vendor selection based on availability, bulk order discounts, shipping times and more.
The end goal remains the same. Engineers design systems within Revit, which feeds the design and fabrication platforms. This digitization of data helps enable the entire supply chain to be optimized and automated, maximizing efficiency while minimizing waste, cost and time.
OMega plays a major role in driving automation across McKinstry’s fabrication operations. Eventually, this automation will extend to the jobsite. Engineers will someday specify systems that tie into automated jobsite technologies such as the SAM100.
But let’s not forget that innovation typically starts away from the jobsite. Fabrication shops are an ideal testbed for automation technologies as long as you can identify a problem, assess what’s possible, start slow and build over time for future growth.