The glazing industry is undergoing a technological revolution with the adoption of new tools and methods. The labor-intensive manual installations of the past are being replaced by robotic manipulators, drones, automation and smart components. These advancements result in safer work sites, improved organization and increased efficiency.
Safety in Robotics
The construction and glazing industries are ripe for new technologies. With an aging workforce, this change is necessary to attract the younger generation raised in the age of technology, says Brian Clark, vice president of national operations at Harmon Inc., a contract glazing firm based in Bloomington, Minn.
Harmon has taken its first steps toward implementing robotics on the jobsite by partnering with San Francisco-based Raise Robotics. The firm designs robotic tools to assist workers in performing difficult tasks on construction sites, enhancing safety and reducing the need for redoing work. The project is still in the early beta phase, but Clark hopes to have robots do all its field anchors on slab edges to ensure the safety of its workers and improve the quality of work.
As Clark explains, “robots don’t get tired.”
The founders of Raise Robotics, CEO Gary Chen and chief operating officer Conley Oster, are engineers who understand both construction and robotics. Their technology is capable of autonomously attaching fasteners on construction sites. It uses artificial intelligence to perceive and operate in the construction environment.
“We started with panel installations,” says Oster. “But we ended up going back to bracket installations. That’s where most of the customers seem to have the biggest heartburn. It’s in the layout and the anchor channel inspection scope of work. It doesn’t help that workers are leaning over the side of the building to complete the installation.”
Oster explains that Raise Robotics is currently working on three applications. The curtainwall bracket installation is its go-to-market primary application. He says the traditional method involves multiple steps with the same component for fastening tasks. This method typically takes one to two hours per bracket for layout, installation and verification. However, the robot can complete a bracket every 10 minutes with 1/16-inch installation accuracy.
The onsite procedure includes uploading a layout detail drawing, driving the robot to the work zone, setting up the total station, loading material hoppers with installation hardware, specifying installation type and location and starting the installation sequence.
Like Playing a Video Game
As efficient as the robot is, Oster says Raise Robotics has had to add known components to the machine to sway wary workers.
“You use a PlayStation 5 controller to drive the robot around construction sites,” he says. “If you get a young tradesperson who sees a PlayStation 5 controller, they ask to drive it around. For the old-timers, it’s a little bit different. But when you sit down and have a conversation to talk about what it does, it definitely changes the tune. You don’t want to be lying on your stomach completely for these installations. You don’t want to be on your hands and knees completing these installations. Being able to step back from the edge, not have your lanyard hooked up, and have the robot do all the hard work for you is definitely appreciated.”
Robotics on the Horizon?
According to Clark, Harmon will beta-test the robot for about a year. The tests are currently on the first floor of a high rise. If it works on floor one, says Clark, the company will use it on each floor.
“I think we’ll see robotics in the construction industry much more in the next five to 10 years because of changes in the workforce and people’s attitudes toward technology,” he says. “Do I believe that it will be setting curtainwall or glass? Maybe in 20 or 40 years, but not in the near future.”
Craig Carson is the vice president and general manager of 8G Solutions, a Denver-based contract glazing company. He one day hopes to see a robotic manipulator pick up and accurately place a window for anchorage using lasers. He explains this technology would speed up the installation and put less strain on workers.
“It’s hard to manipulate the windows using hand controls when talking about fractions of inches,” he says. “Glaziers are just not adept that close. And as glaziers age, it’s harder on their backs. The units are getting heavier. We need something that can pick something out of a cart or case, get it positioned and place it in.”