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Last edited 02 Jun 2020
Cobots in the construction industry
Advanced technology is changing the construction industry. The proliferation of ConTech (the intersection of tools associated with construction and technology) is having an impact on everything that is digitally connected.
Robots have been a popular subject for the creative imagination as far back as ancient Greek and Roman times. They appeared as automata (human-shaped machines that could perform certain tasks) in China in the 10th century. They also featured in the sketches of Leonardo DaVinci.
As literary inspiration, they entertained and influenced the likes of Rene Descartes, Mary Shelly, Edgar Allen Poe, L Frank Baum (who, in addition to creating a robotic Tin Woodman in his book, the Wizard of Oz, also mentioned augmented reality - the concept of an electric display that overlays data onto real life - in 1901) and Isaac Asimov (the science fiction author behind the Robot series, including I, Robot).
In film and television, robots appeared early and often, taking centre stage in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Years later, many generations of film viewers were introduced to robots R2-D2 and C-3PO in the Star Wars series of movies, graphic novels and other forms of entertainment. Robots also played a significant role in American Cold War-era television programmes like The Twilight Zone (1959 - 1964) and Lost in Space (1965 - 1968).
It was in 1954 that one of the first industrial robots, Unimate, was invented in the United States by George Devol. It was sold to General Motors in 1960 and put to work in 1961 on an assembly line in New Jersey. From that point, robotics became incorporated into production and manufacturing processes throughout the world.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the concept of cobotics was introduced in the United States. Patented in 1997 by two professors from Northwestern University, cobots came about as a result of work at the Robotics Centre, again at General Motors, in 1994. A subsequent grant in 1995 allowed research to find a way for robots and people to work together side by side - to collaborate - safely.
The difference between cobots and robots is not about technology; it’s about the type of work they do and how they do it. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), robots are automated tools designed for independent use in industrial, domestic and professional environments. In cobotics, the difference in the automated technology is in their collaborative intention. Cobots are robots that are not meant to replace their human counterparts; they are meant to work directly with them with the intention of improving productivity and enhancing safety. Note that there is some degree of controversy around the differentiation between the two terms - cobots and robots - due to the open interpretation of the concept of collaboration.
- Co-existence: Humans and cobots work together but do not share workspaces.
- Sequential collaboration: Humans and cobots may share some or all of the workspace, but work independently from each other (they do not work on the same task together at the same time).
- Co-operation: Humans and cobots work together simultaneously.
- Responsive collaboration: Cobots are programmed to react to the actions of their human counterparts.
Co-existence and sequential applications are more commonly used than co-operation and responsive collaboration.
 Special conditions
Since cobots are not entirely independent, they are meant to have some degree of supervision while working. They are also fairly simple to programme (compared to autonomous robots). This allows their human counterparts to make modifications to their actions when necessary.
Designed with an emphasis on safety, cobots typically incorporate rounded shapes (to prevent human injuries) and sensors (to control the accuracy of their actions). Functions to stop movement are programmed into cobots along with power and force limitations to minimise the possibility of human injuries.
Cobots can be deployed for tasks that might otherwise be thought of as tedious or even dangerous, but essential. This may decrease labour costs and result in the reduction of repetitive or physically demanding jobs for workers who can be reassigned to more mentally demanding or creative tasks that can be completed alongside the collaborative actions of cobots.
- Logistics - to transport heavy materials or equipment from one part of a building site to another.
- Prefabrication - for assembly line production and transportation of components.
- Assembly - to perform specific tasks, such as tightening screws, with accuracy.
- Inspection - in areas that are difficult for humans to access.
Cobots do not typically require as much power to operate as standard robots since they are often relatively small and agile. There is also the option to redeploy or reprogramme some cobots for multiple tasks, so they can be moved from one project to another when needed.
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