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The Future of Robotics and Access Equipment

by: Jennifer Stiansen, Director of Marketing, JLG
Driven by compounding advances in technology and massive workforce changes in part because of the pandemic, the construction industry is now adopting robotics at an accelerated rate.

Let’s take a look at how this technology is already being used in construction and adjacent fields, what may come next and what it means for access equipment like mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) and telehandlers.

Robots: Drivers of Change
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the one constant has been change. As successive waves of technology have made work significantly more productive and safer, the roles of workers have also evolved. As a manufacturer, JLG has experienced the challenges and opportunities of adopting technology firsthand, from the design and engineering of equipment to the manufacturing floor and even to supporting machines in the field.

Until the 1970s, most factory production work was performed by manual labor. During this decade, many manufacturers adopted robots for welding applications that required a high degree of precision. In part, they also adopted these automated solutions to compensate for a shortage of skilled labor. During this factory floor revolution, the role of human workers evolved to focus on oversight and inspection.

Today’s robots are more flexible, which means they can be reprogrammed to handle a variety of tasks. The role of human workers has continued to evolve as a result, designing workflows and programming robots to perform increasingly sophisticated tasks. Robots have become so powerful and flexible that they’re starting to move outside of factories into an array of in-the-field applications where they show similar promise.

A New Challenge
Today, manufacturers and fleet owners face a major challenge – an unprecedented labor shortage. Even before the global pandemic, workers were retiring in record numbers and fewer people were entering the construction industry. COVID-19 accelerated this trend, leaving fleet owners with no choice but to explore new ways of working, utilizing new tools and technologies – including robotics.

At the same time, job site safety remains an ongoing focal area for equipment owners, especially in applications where employees must work at height or perform heavy, repetitive tasks. Advances in technology now make it possible for workers to control or monitor a machine at a safe distance on an autonomous or semi-autonomous basis.

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A final driver of robotics in construction is the constant need to improve productivity, streamline repetitive processes and reduce operating costs. Robotic technology can handle repetitive tasks faster and at a more consistent level of quality.

Across the construction industry, advances such as self-driving machines, auto-compensation for load dynamics and automated site grading couldn’t even be imagined a generation ago. But they’re becoming more common today. Inevitably, robotics will play a role in the design and applications of MEWPs and telehandlers in the years ahead.

Current Uses of Robotics
If we want to envision where the use of robotics in access equipment is headed, a great place to start is how it’s now being used in adjacent product categories and industries.

One industry that is consistently five to 10 years ahead of the construction industry is the automobile industry. Here, technology follows a familiar path. New technologies are often first introduced on luxury vehicles because of their initial high cost. As these technologies mature, they are adopted by more consumers and build economies of scale, then they move downstream to less expensive car brands. Examples include self-driving cars, active body control, and adaptive cruise control. All involve autonomous or semi-autonomous control of the vehicle, which could be broadly considered a type of robotics.

Technology has been following a similar trajectory in the construction industry. Grade-leveling systems on crawler dozers and motor graders and auto-dig systems on hydraulic excavators, once considered specialized examples of automated machine control, have become commonplace.

Here are some other examples of areas where robotics is currently making some major advances in the construction and related industries.

Handling Dangerous, Repetitive Work
Most buildings have mechanical and electrical pipes, tubes and conduits that are suspended from the ceiling and weave throughout the structure. During new building construction, pipe hangers and strut support systems must be anchored to the underside of concrete decks.

This requires manually drilling hundreds of holes in an awkward overhead position, where silica dust from concrete drilling is a constant safety concern. A new construction robot can locate and drill holes for these overhead anchors based upon a BIM or CAD worksite layout, in a fraction of the time of a human laborer.

Speeding Up Time-Consuming and Repetitive Tasks
A unique robot prints chalk lines onto concrete floors to mark the placements of walls, mechanical systems and other building elements, based on CAD drawings of floor layouts. This is normally a laborious task that requires several workers.

Another solution uses a robotic arm rigged to a gantry crane to find rebar junctions and attach ties before a concrete pour, saving many hours of back-breaking labor on road, bridge, and other projects. It can tie up to 1,100 intersections per hour, day or night, rain or shine. The developer of this tool created it in response to labor shortages.

Moving Large or Heavy Equipment
A new system now under development by JLG and RE2 will automate the transfer, lifting and placement of solar panels using a robotic arm and manipulator tool attached to the end of the boom of a JLG 450AJ Articulated Boom Lift. This system will use a vision system to guide the machine to autonomously retrieve solar panels from a delivery vehicle and precisely place the panels onto a racking system. A worker follows behind to secure the panels.

This highly specialized project is part of a larger effort at JLG to implement semi-autonomous and autonomous solutions to minimize the impact of worker shortages, both on the factory floor and the job site.

“There’s no question in my mind that robotics for MEWPs will follow the same technology curve we’ve seen in other industries,” explains JLG’s Senior Vice President of Global Product Development and Product Management Rob Messina.

Opportunities for the Aerial Lift Industry
The use of robotics is accelerating in the aerial lift industry to enable new ways of working, minimize disruptions caused by labor shortages and prevent injury from repetitive, heavy tasks. There are two areas where robotics have the potential to make an impact.
Integrating a Robotic Arm With Lift Equipment
What if a robotic arm equipped with interchangeable end-of-arm tooling could be attached to the end of a boom lift – like a mobile industrial robot? Utilizing position data from GPS, vision systems and sensors, it could handle many specialized tasks.

The electric motors of industrial robots can be programmed to precisely repeat the same motions and actions, making such a setup ideal for repetitive tasks such as drilling or painting. This type of solution could also be used to perform semi-autonomous tasks at height, while the operator monitors the machine’s operation safely on the ground.

Connecting Equipment on Job Sites
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a set of technologies that enables machines and devices to share data without human intervention. Why not adapt IoT to mobile equipment and workers on construction sites? This type of rich data sharing would enable autonomous or semi-autonomous machines to coordinate with each other, leading to more efficient work processes, reduced waiting and idling times and improved job site safety.

Imagine an autonomous MEWP or telehandler picking construction materials and performing lifts to the second floor of an apartment building that’s under construction. As it performs these cycles, it would utilize data from other IoT-equipped machines and workers on the site to plot the safest, most efficient path to and from the building.

The Robotics Revolution
Labor shortages don’t appear to be subsiding any time soon, driving the need for new ways of working – including automating repetitive, heavy or dangerous tasks. In much the same way as robotics have impacted manufacturing, their future use in the lift industry represents an opportunity for fleet owners to redeploy their workers to tasks where they can add greater value.

“We’re just at the very beginning of the robotics revolution for access equipment,” Messina points out.

“As the technology continues to mature for MEWPs and telehandlers, and more customers see the value of it, I predict we’ll see a remarkable variety of mainstream uses. We aim to be at the forefront of this revolution,” he concludes.

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