No matter where my travels take me, I am always amazed at the workmanship behind the building of high rises, massive complexes, and waterways. As a daughter of a carpenter, I have spent many days on construction sites witnessing what these artisans can do and the risks they are willing to take to turn those blueprints in their hand into reality.
Construction projects of any kind are inherently dangerous. One false move, one moment of lost focus, or a missing a cut by a sixteenth of an inch can prove to be injurious, life-altering, or even deadly. In the United States alone, there have been 885 worker fatalities – on average, 100 per month – since October 15, 2014, comprising over 20% of all workplace fatalities in the private sector.
The leading cause? Falls, followed by being struck by a heavy object, electrocution, and getting caught in or between objects. In fact, the “fatal four” comprised more than half (57.7%) of all construction-related deaths in 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
Even as workplace deaths have dramatically decreased by 67% since 1970, clearly making a living shouldn’t cost a worker’s life. “Workplace fatalities, injuries, and illnesses are preventable. Safe jobs happen because employers make the choice to fulfill their responsibilities and protect their workers,” states Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for U.S. Occupational Safety and Health. And eliminating the fatal four will make the construction world safer.
Keeping construction projects safe with 3D printing and robotics
Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, is widely known for its 100 km network of canals, connecting approximately 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. Its three main canals – Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht – date back to the 1600s and form concentric belts around the city of Grachtengordel. Lining the main channels are 1,550 monumental buildings. With a sight like this, it’s easy to see why Amsterdam is commonly referred as “Venice of the North.”
For centuries, the city relied on the skills of their construction workers to maintain this system of waterways and bridges. However, starting in 2017 these men and women should no longer have to risk their lives. At least, that’s the idea behind an ambitious proposal allowing industrial robots to “draw” a steel bridge over the water in 3D.
By combining 3D printing and robotics technology, the engineers behind this construction project believe that their idea is a baby step toward implementing a new way for completing dangerous tasks such as working on high-rise buildings. The technique also eliminates the need for constructing temporary scaffolding outside of a building since a robot arm can latch itself onto the very structure it is printing.
The digital world meets the future of work
So does this mean that robots are taking over the world? Probably not. However, it is a surging multibillion-dollar market with the potential to keep people safer. By 2019, it’s predicted that the market for consumer and business robots will rise to $1.5 billion, seven times faster than the market for manufacturing robots.
Thanks to the growing use of mobile devices, designers are creating app-controlled robots at more accessible price points for consumer and office applications, such as:
- Home cleaning and maintenance
- Telecommuting to events or remote offices
- Assistance for the handicap
Although this all sounds promising, up-and-coming vendors in the robotics space still face significant obstacles. For one, people tend to dislike robots that appear too human-like. Another turnoff is the high price tag associated with technologies that support robot mobility and object manipulation. Plus, there’s growing concern over intellectual property.
Will we ever overcome these issues to fully realize the potential social good of robotics technology without the risk of a takeover? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll settle for small steps made by these Dutch engineers to make construction sites safer for everyone.
For more insight on future-focused technology, see The 5 Most Important Tools of the Make for Me Future.