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Construction’s Perfect Storm: An Interview With ABB’s Stefan Drakensjö

By Joel Davies -

This interview originally appeared in Automate Pro Europe magazine 1. All information was correct at the time of publication.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us about what you do for ABB?

Stefan Drakensjö, Swedish National living in Stockholm but working across the globe as VP of Global Marketing and Sales for our business called General Industry. That means I’m working with all ABB units to serve and support customers in a multitude of different industries. Construction is in there but we also have some more mature robot automation segments, specifically metal related ones.

Why focus on the construction industry & why move into it now?

The construction sector right now is facing the perfect storm. On the one hand, you have a great demand for housing and commercial buildings. Then on the other side, you have the pressure to build more sustainably. This is presenting a lot of challenges along with the global labour and skill shortage. So I think that is one major reason why it’s never been so important to look at how construction itself can become more effective, and also safer and more sustainable.

Also, with so few construction businesses using robotics and automation today, there’s a huge potential for us to incentivize and transform this industry. So unlike the automotive industry that’s been doing this for 50 years, construction is far behind when it comes to automation. So it’s a new segment, in the sense that there’s very little density of robotics in construction compared to the other ones.

We see a big potential here that needs to grow and our focus on emerging segments is a very important part of our strategy. So with the growing demand and the mass customization that goes on in all industries, it’s very important for us to be focusing on these emerging segments.

What are some of the potential benefits of introducing robotic automation into the construction industry?

One of the benefits, and it’s related to what I mentioned before, is to tackle this perfect storm. But then, how can you build more efficiently with robots and the tools that you come along with? You start to do something in terms of how you simulate design and fabrication and digital and robotics can really provide value in that.

It can be everything from fabricating modules for buildings more efficiently, it can also be handling repetitive tasks with higher accuracy and maybe taking over some of the repetitive, monotonous work with robots and enabling workers to raise the level of work.

Then I come back – how can you build more sustainably? We estimate that up to 25% of material transported to a building site leaves as waste. That’s a huge amount, right? With digital tools, planning, automation, and robotics, you can actually decrease waste quite heavily, not to say in the least that the time on some of these processes can be decreased.

In the survey, 91% of the survey respondents said they see a skills crisis in the next 10 years. It’s already happening so companies have a challenge with skilled labour. That’s going to increase. It’s where we see robotics can help.

Realistically, how will that look?

First of all, when we look at construction, we’re obviously looking on site, but also at off-site production. So how can you do things effectively before something arrives on-site? But before I elaborate more, we’ve just seen the beginning. We will for sure see an evolution where robotics and digital solutions will be presented in a variety of applications we still have not seen.

Robotics in general – on smaller and larger scales – offers a huge potential to enhance the productivity, efficiency and flexibility I mentioned. I would say you might see it on the larger scale, but I wouldn’t discount that you will also be able to see this in the smaller-scale projects as well.

Just mentioning a few examples, there are a lot of rebar cage assemblies in construction. There are also, for instance, robots doing tile cutting. There’s a customer in Denmark who has a transportable file cutting robotics solution making prefab components through 3D printing. It could work, obviously, with cement, but it can also work with manifolds in plastics, 3D printing, drilling and smoothing of surfaces.

Last but not least, there is material handling, where material handling robots could take away the handling of larger and heavy loads. There are a lot of things already being piloted but we will for sure see a lot more going forward in the future.

Can you tell me about some of the case studies? I’ve seen Schindler installing lifts into elevator shafts using your robots, for example.

The Schindler project is a great example. So if you look at Schindler, they’re using ABB robots as part of this autonomous drilling system in elevator shafts. With a robot, on an autonomous vehicle moving up and down, you have it scanning the walls. You can also then drill holes exactly where you want. I think it’s a great example of how you put robots in an environment that is not the safest and you take away a very, very monotonous job that, when substituted by robots, is addressing sustainability and taking away hazardous work. You also get the effectiveness, quality and consistency of the holes.

There’s also the example of Skanska. One of the most, if not the most common material used in construction is cement. Skanska is using ABB robots and the very powerful simulation software, ABB RobotStudio to produce more effectively the reinforcement bars that are part of the concrete structure.

Today, one of the very labour intensive tasks on a construction site is the manufacturing and the tying of these rebars. Sometimes it can be done off-site and they come to the site prepared, but what we’re looking here at is either welding or as it is with Skanska, you can do it with the tying machine. With the machine, you can put these together in a very, very effective way.

Skanska has an example of how that can be done and the increase in effectiveness is immense. It’s about 16 times faster, which is usually about 16 hours per tonne manually and one hour using the robot. This is one of the areas where there is a skills shortage and it’s difficult to find people to do that kind of job over and over again because it’s maybe not the most stimulating and rewarding job. It’s a very tough job as well.

One of the major concerns with automation, particularly with robots, is that they’re going to take away jobs from people that want them. How is ABB’s move into construction going to affect jobs?

To begin with, the future that we see in front of us here is, and you see examples already, it’s robots and people. Using robots to support workers with repetitive tasks and all the monotonous and mundane tasks will allow the employees to upskill and also focus on the more valuable tasks. I also feel that this is a very important thing actually to attract the people who are entering education today, especially young people who have been raised on digital technologies and see them as part of their everyday lives. The use of digital tools and robotics and automation can help to update the image of the construction sector and attract these people to the industry. That is huge.

Then, not related to construction, but if you just look at, in general, countries that have the highest robotics density, you will find that those countries are leading in the lowest employment rates. You can mention Sweden, which is very high up, but you even have Korea, Japan and Germany, which are ahead in terms of the number of robots they use per 10,000 employees and also in numbers of people employed.

So if you look at the high number of robotic solutions, it makes you more competitive and that can decrease your unemployment rates in the manufacturing industry. So I think they go together. It’s not robots or humans, it’s robots and humans. When you have that, you become more efficient, more effective and more competitive. That’s the answer to how we see that one. The nature of jobs will change, though, but we’ve also seen that when the nature of jobs changes, you also create new jobs.

Could you elaborate on the safety aspect? I remember from the study, it was quite a large portion of it.

Health and safety is a really big challenge in the number of accidents. Even lethal accidents in construction are very high. So obviously, robotics has an important role here to decrease that number.

If you look at many industries and take the automotive industry as an example, safety is fundamental. And you eliminate a lot of risks robotics has taken away. Lots of hazards can occur where you can get injured by cutting yourself or whatever but they can also come from the repetitive tasks that create stress on the body.

So by substituting heavy loads, taking humans out of dangerous areas and placing them maybe in the higher level of work tasks, then you’ll be able to decrease part of those incidents or accidents that happen today.

What kind of robots will you be using? Cobots, or are they more like precision robots?

Let’s not exclude the cobots but what we’ve seen so far, in all the pilot projects and the projects that have been used, it’s more the industrial robots. The good thing here is that we don’t need to reinvent anything; we can actually apply both application solutions and robots that are already proven in every type of industry and bring them into construction.

Obviously, some adaptation of the robots to meet the needs of the process might be needed. They are industrial robots first and foremost, but we will for sure see some cobot applications as well. Whilst I’m speaking about that, you know, cobots is one thing and the other thing is collaborative robotics. So collaborative robotics, that is when an industrial robot can work in a collaborative mode with humans. Here, you have software that allows you to set protective safety zones that help to regulate the speed and movement of the robot when people are detected in close proximity.

For instance, ABB has something called ABB SafeMove that allows you to take even our biggest robot and move around it whilst the laser scanners detect the presence of human workers. So the robots might be carrying heavy loads or doing other things and the worker can intermittently go in and go out and also do tasks whilst the robot is handling the part. So this is when a collaborative robotics application might not need a cobot. You could do that with an industrial robot.

Do you think ABB’s investment in the construction industry will affect other industries?

I think inevitably, now construction companies themselves are looking to see how they can become more effective, more sustainable, they will definitely look into innovating. It comes with a need also for focusing on how we raise awareness, how we offer training and the skills that will be needed for implementing more and more digital tools and robot applications into construction. I think construction, it’s not the last, but it is far behind many of the other more mature industries. I think construction has a lot to look at and learn from other industries that have always innovated.

Then there are other industries that also have a lot to do. And I think all these industries now with digitalization, the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0, they’re all inspired. I think they all understand that they need to drive effectiveness in innovation and see how they will be doing something 5-10 years from now because standing still is not the best recipe.

What are some of the largest challenges that you face?

First of all, there’s so much to do – but I think it’s more an opportunity than a challenge. There’s huge interest and there’s a lot of companies that are opening their eyes and understanding what opportunities are there.  However, there is a limitation because they’re not used to doing this. One of the things that we must do is to work together with construction companies and academia to raise the levels of knowledge, training and competence. We also need to understand what’s needed from a robotics company to support them better, but also the construction companies themselves.

How do they raise the level of work and their culture and processes to adapt? Because one thing is we see this great need and opportunity, but to execute it, you need to increase the competence and the knowledge to make it happen. That comes through raising the level of robotics competence on their side, and also how we can interact together with them. Obviously, construction is one of the largest industries in the world, and they have their processes. So we need to understand how those processes work as well.

I see it as an opportunity and it will require a focus that has not been there for decades, right. So this focus is something that the industry, construction, robotics and academia need. I think here it’s important for the future generations coming into construction.

[Joel] As you mentioned, the construction industry, in a way, has stood still for a long time. Do you think acceptance of new technology is a factor at all?

I think maybe it’s natural that in some companies, you have processes that are very rigid, and you have done it for a long time in the same way. So then you have this, even though it’s not the personal resistance to change, you might have the fact that change takes effort. So I think more than resistance, it’s that it takes time to change.

Some companies will be faster than others, that’s for sure. I think it does not take a lot to understand the need to change because 99.91% of the survey respondents say they see a skills crisis. That’s just one example of what they need to address. It takes an effort to change and to adapt to this. The good thing is we see lots of companies raising hands and wanting to do more.

What do the next five years look like for ABB and the construction industry?

I don’t want to disappoint you with a very short answer but we don’t honestly know. One thing we know is that there’ll be more ABB robots in construction. We predict a higher than average CAGR growth rate than the traditional segments but it’s so difficult to say where it will end. We know that we have the focus and the industry has the need and the pain points that need to be addressed. So in fact, we know there are going to be a lot more robots annually than there are today. And we know the CAGR is higher than average.

[Joel] Do you anticipate a slow uptake then?

We see that there will be an uptake of let’s say, 20+ per cent per year versus today. So each year the number of robots going into different applications will grow. And like I said before, it’s not only on-site, it’s definitely off-site. It could be walls, wall structures, floor structures, ceilings, trusses, both metal and wood.

Architects are looking at how they can innovate and mass customise buildings – I mean, 3D printing provides an excellent tool for doing things that you can’t do in a traditional way. So I think we will definitely not only see numbers increase, but we will also see an increase in use cases. Besides the things that you are discussing, or that you have seen, there is, of course, more being worked on, both in universities, but also in the industrial construction companies.

One thing we haven’t touched upon is that you’re working with several universities. Would you be able to expand on that?

ABB has been a pioneer when it comes to software. In the 90s, we started the development of our ABB RobotStudio simulation software and it’s a very powerful software. Using RobotStudio, you can create virtual models of an installation in an offline environment. You can make complete simulations – not only of the robots but of your production environment and your worksite – and you can also use it with virtual reality glasses to kind of interact and have a dialogue and a virtual meeting around what you’re planning to produce or put into effect.

On a worksite, you can also have this augmented reality where you can take the simulation and overlay it on the place where you plan to have it later to see how it works. And universities have seen the power of this simulation. So we have great examples specifically in construction, where we see both architects and educational units, it could be vocational schools or universities or colleges and they use the robot studio to train and also to program different types of robot applications.

One of the very well known universities, ETH Zurich, has two gantries with four robots hanging upside down intended for doing experiments and pilots for building with wood and different types of metal. And that’s just one of the things they’re doing. They’re doing a lot more.

What do you want the readers of the magazine to take away from this interview?

First of all, I think understanding that construction is in front of this perfect storm is important – the perfect storm being you have the need for more housing and more building construction; you have the demand for improving sustainability and also the already existing challenge with the skills and labour shortage. How does robotics play a role in this? We just spoke about sustainability. The key industry drivers for environmentally friendly manufacturing and construction processes is something that can be supported and robots can really play a role in that. That’s number one.

The second one is that 91% predict a skills shortage in 10 years and robotics can play a major role here to address that. At the same time, I would like them to think that it’s also a means of making construction more attractive, to go into construction both on-site and off-site. Robotics is a fun place to be too. Robotics together with construction is a great place to be so and the examples you touched on with Skanska, and Schindler exemplify this but there are so many more.

You can find more information about ABB on its website.

Stay up to date with the most recent automation, computer vision, machine vision and robotics news on Automate Pro Europe, CVPro, MVPro and RBPro.

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