One of the robots demonstrated by Shimizu Corp. is already being used in several Japanese construction sites. Called Robo-Buddy, the automaton lifted a bunch of wooden boards before hauling them to the nearest elevator.
The Robo-Buddy and its partner, the Robo-Welder, featured robotic arms that can twist and turn to fit in various spaces. Shimizu expected to start deploying them en masse in the latter half of 2018. (Related: Robots now automating the harvesting of cucumbers in Germany.)
There is no shortage of construction jobs in heavily urbanized Japan. There is, however, a decided shortage of manpower, a problem shared with the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Shimizu hopes the robot workers it is showing off at its Tokyo test facility will be able to amend that problem. Once deployed in large numbers, the robots can greatly cut down the number of human workers required by a construction site.
Construction work involves a lot of different jobs. Some of these tasks are too complicated or delicate for robots to handle.
Masahiro Indo, a managing executive officer in charge of Shimizu's construction robot program, said that current robots can only handle about one percent of the jobs in a typical construction site. It will take a lot of effort to raise that to 10 percent, and it might not be cost-effective to engineer such capabilities.
There is also a huge difference between manufacturing sites and construction sites. Robot workers in the former are placed inside sterile areas and perform just one job as many times as needed without ever leaving the building.
Construction robots, on the other hand, must travel around the site. Their paths will change according to their destination, and they will need to cross uneven floors or avoid obstacles.
To resolve these challenges, Shimizu is working on artificial intelligence (AI) technology that can direct its German-built robot workers. The company believed its construction robots will keep human workers safe and reduce their working hours.
To show off what its new robot workers could do, a Shimizu spokesperson brought up the way a lone human worker would approach a bolting job. The human would use one of his arms to hold up a board while his main hand gripped the power tool.
In order to keep the board steady, he would prop it up with his helmeted head. The human would also keep the bolts in his mouth so that they were within easy reach.
Robo-Buddy, on the other hand, used suction cups to lift and hold up the board. A robotic arm proceeded to bolt the board in place.
Shimizu's construction robots will need to pick up an increasing amount of slack. Japan's low birth rate means its pool of available workers is getting smaller and older on average.
Furthermore, construction contractors are finding it difficult to recruit younger people into the business. Shimizu projected that the number of Japanese construction workers will drop from 3.4 million during 2014 to 2.2 million during 2025.
Other companies in Japan and the rest of the world are designing their own construction robots. Toyota Motor Corp. is working on two different models, while American company Construction Robotics is testing out a brick-laying robot.
Find out what other short-handed jobs are being taken over by robot workers at Robots.news.