This year I got to do a class on the Commonwealth Government's 2018-19 Budget in the context of the state of play for Australia's construction and property industries. This is a top-down overview, the budget is like an annual scorecard of current economic performance, so all the data is at a national level and follows the budget focus on the ongoing transition from the end of mining boom two in 2012. The lecture looked at the macroeconomic role of increased government spending on infrastructure and the change in roles of residential building and non-residential construction in the business cycle. The slides from the lecture follow, PDF here, the idea is to let the data tell the story. I also do a class that goes through the Budget aggregates in their macroeconomic context, with a bit of history, the PDF of Budget 2018 - A Macro View is here.
Other relevant posts are:
Construction in the Australian Economy here
The Australian Construction Industry After the Mining Boom here
In this edition of The Cutting Edge
five construction technologies are covered: remote operated dozers, 3D
printed excavator parts, a cheap concrete printed house for developing countries, an
inspection drone, and a bricklaying robot. What these technologies have in common is their actual and potential for autonomous operation.
Every three years a giant
construction and agricultural machinery show is held in the US, featuring the
latest in giant machines like cranes, excavators, mobile road plants and so on. At this year’s CONEXPO-CON/AGG & IFPE show there were a lot of first
generation smart machines, with more sensors and improved digital control
systems. These all work with a person in control, at what is now thought of as
level 1 automation. No level 2 machines as yet, which would be capable of
operating without human control but with a human in the loop. However, there were
demonstrations of a couple of interesting frontier technologies at the show and this post starts with them.
Remote Operated Dozers
One was from industry heavyweight
Caterpillar, who have developed serious capability in autonomous mining and
haulage systems. They have a system called Cat COMMAND. There is a portable
version, to be worn around the neck of the operator while outside the machine,
or a COMMAND station for an operator, that provides screens and wireless
control of the machinery. An operator in the COMMAND station can monitor and
run multiple machines.
Cat COMMAND was initially launched
in 2016 with RemoteTask, as a remote control system exclusive to Cat Skid
Steers and limited to a 1,000 foot wireless radius. After substantial progress,
with the new system for remote controlled dozers and excavators operators can
remotely operate machinery from long distances. Australian companies like BHP
are at the forefront of long distance automated mining, and tech company RCT provides a system
for their remotely operated mining machinery and equipment.
It seems very likely that the
mining and agricultural robots under development could quickly spillover to
building and construction. An example might be the Dot Power Platform,
a farm-bot that can change tools to do 100 different jobs. The farmer uses a
remote control to position Dot alongside the tool attachment, such as a seeder,
then four hydraulic arms hoist and secure the apparatus to the machine. That
sort of flexibility would be important on construction sites.
3D Printed Excavator Parts
A combination of industry, academic and government partners collaborated to
create the first functional excavator using 3D-printed components, called
(for additive manufactured excavator). The machine’s cab, boom, and heat
exchanger were 3D-printed at CONEXPO. Using low-cost steel, the seven-foot-long,
400-pound boom was printed in five days, while the carbon fibre cab was printed
in five hours. The design contest for university student teams was won by five
students from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, who feature in
In this context the 3d printers
developed by Australian company Aurora Labs
are interesting. These also print metal components, unlike the resin and
plastic products produced by most conventional printers, and with Worley Parsons will be trialled in the
mining industry for onsite production of replacement parts and components,
using a database of specifications from manufacturers. They have a Small Format
Printer on sale globally, and a Large Format Printer under development.
3D Printed Concrete House
While on 3D printing, US company ICON has developed a concrete printing
technology, and in March 2018 built a prototype house to US housing standards, in Austin, Texas. This may become the first
mass-production version of concrete printing to become widely used, because it
is the outcome of a partnership between ICON and charity New Story,
developed specifically for underserved populations.
New Story, a Y Combinator backed
start-up, is a non-profit focused on providing safe homes for families living
in slums around the globe. In three years they have funded 1,400 and built more
than 850 homes, in Haiti, El Salvador, Mexico, and Bolivia. To provide higher
quality homes faster at a lower cost New Story partnered with ICON to create
the first 3D home printer. The printer is designed to work under the
constraints that are common in the places New Story works, where power can be
unpredictable, clean water is not guaranteed and technical assistance is
The printer uses a
computer-programmed spout, attached to a 3D printer set on tracks, to extrude concrete
that hardens. It builds a house (the shell of it, minus the roof) in under 24
hours, for less than USD$4000 (AUD$5000). The 56-74 square metre homes are
constructed with near zero waste, with workers coming in to add doors, windows,
roofing, wiring and plumbing to the shell. Each house can be put together by
two to four workers.
Following the previous Cutting Edge
on drones in construction comes a track-mounted inspection drone designed to
crawl around a site. Using lidar-equipped robots, Doxel scans a construction site
every day to monitor how things are progressing, tracking what gets installed
and whether it’s the right thing at the right time in the right place. Lidar
measures distances with lasers, and the robot scans following prescheduled paths, including
stairs, and can cover about 30,000 square meters a week.
Doxel combines the large amount of
data it is collecting with deep-learning
techniques, with a focus on interpreting the data they collect, so the robots
are an efficient and cost effective way to get it. Once the robot is finished
it sends the data to the cloud and Doxel’s 3D ‘semantic deep-learning
algorithms’ go to work. These have been trained to recognize all kinds of
components, even if only a bit of them is visible, based on shape, location,
and size. The accuracy of the lidar map created allows them to verify that the
right things have been installed correctly and exactly. If
they have, Doxel can quantify that progress, and if they haven’t an alert goes
to the project manager. The company is also using drones, but in a limited capacity
because they require human supervision. Doxel is a US startup that recently had
a USD$4.5 million funding round.
Australian company Fastbrick Robotics is developing a stabilised, truck
mounted system with a single long arm that lays bricks up to 20 meters away.
They made a demonstration model in 2015, and in 2017 Caterpillar
invested USD$2 million in the company, with an option to invest another $8
million. The money will be used for development of the Hadrian X prototype, which
will ‘print’ structures layer by layer using glue and engineered blocks. The structure does not require
steel tie-ins and all
door and window openings, and service points, are built in as the robot follows
the design in the CAD file it is working from. Their key technology
breakthrough appears to be the ability to stabilize the truck platform and movement of the arm so placement of the bricks is accurate and consistent.