“Soonish: ten new technologies that will change everything and / or destroy everything”: if tomorrow robotization becomes widespread, our homes will be made by 3D printing in record time and within the reach of all budgets!
Surprisingly, while automation and robotics burst into many industries at the end of the last century, the methods used in the construction industry had changed little in decades, despite some attempts at revolution during of the XXth century.
This is due to several problems which made the use of robots unattractive in comparison with humans for the construction of houses, which are complex objects assembled under difficult conditions of reproducibility. But we see that things have changed in recent years, and that the construction of your house by robots, and for a low cost, now seems realistic. So this is one of the ten technologies that will change the world presented in the Soonish book by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith.
MASON ROBOTS, CARPENTERS AND BUILDERS
One of the approaches for introducing robots into the building is to seek to build robot masons, carpenters, and other building trades. In fact, it is not the best approach, because paradoxically, it is easier to give instructions to an artificial intelligence for a seemingly complex task (such as multiplying two 10-digit numbers between them) than for a task “Simple” like stacking bricks, which requires observing the evolution of real conditions (consistency and thickness of the mortar for example) and adapting to it, often in a way that is difficult to translate into elementary instructions. It was still done, as evidenced by the SAM video below.
The problem is, if SAM is very efficient at stacking bricks (and again, under the supervision of a human), it can do nothing else, unlike a human. To get around this problem, many projects are working on creating robots with a central unit equipped with cameras and sensors and an arm with which we could associate different tools.
A complementary approach, which takes up the idea of the swarm robots presented in the previous article of the series, is to make thousands of small independent robots work together. Let’s keep two projects among those presented: flying robots dropping bricks, and minibuilders, small 3D printers linked to a central concrete distributor unit.
Although we can hope that it will be easier to implement a technology on rough terrain or in extreme conditions, rather than a large robot or a team of workers, the transposition of the laboratory to the real life seems to me little advanced.
The third approach is growing fast – it has even grown a lot since the book was written. This is 3D printing of houses. Yes, you read that right, companies are now specialized in 3D printing of buildings.
Most use concrete (a certain type of concrete suitable for 3D printing), but other materials are studied and used, to build from local and / or ecological materials. A project described by the authors even pays for the luxury of printing your house while it brings it to your house: it is a 3D printer coupled to a robot with articulated arm, mounted on a truck – the houses are made by pouring concrete into an insulating foam preform.
At the time of the writing of the book, the actors of the field were worried about the regulatory limits imposed by certifications written for a construction in stages and not in layers – no wonder that our “dear” States find the right pretexts to prevent innovation – but put forward that there was no real safety problem because quality monitoring could be done as the construction progressed, and by integrated sensors.
The last company presented, Icon, built the first 3D house in the United States (with building permits and authorizations), and illustrates many of the expected benefits of the development of this technology. Being able to build very quickly and at low cost is a hope for those who are homeless or whose housing is unsanitary, whether because of poverty or sudden population displacements.
If this cost is low enough, it could be borne by others than states or international aid (itself funded by states). It will also allow everyone to afford houses that are larger, more original or with different materials.
The diversity of the actors interested in financing such a technological advance is visible in the page of the projects carried out by Icon: this goes from the realization of a housing estate in Mexico (financed by a charitable association), to the study of buildable houses on Mars (funded by NASA), through partnerships with groups of architects.
Lovers of the planet will also be happy to know that 3D printing makes it possible to reduce waste, limit the volume of raw materials to the right need (by choosing complex structures, also solid with less material), and use materials more ecological (recycled for example).
As is the case every time automation is contemplated in an industry, it raises concerns about the destruction of jobs in the sector. It must be recognized that the building industry is a massive employer and that the risk is not small … if robotization becomes widespread – impossible for the moment to know how quickly the players in the field will adopt these changes!
AN OBVIOUS IMPACT ON EMPLOYMENT
But the authors of Soonish are carrying out an interesting reflection to show how the impact of this technology on employment is not so obvious.
First of all because it is, as always in the case of artificial intelligence, very difficult to know which jobs will disappear and which will be modified and cohabit with robots. It is possible that new trades are less risky than old ones (industrial accidents are common in construction).
Second, because the drastic reduction in construction costs may cause changes in behavior. When making clothes became more affordable, people bought more, more varied, and more often. Quite clever who can predict what will happen to robots in the future of construction jobs! Hopefully our chief planners will therefore refrain from trying, and will not hinder the development of this promising technology.