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The Mobile Building Robot from nLink AS is about to enter large-scale use, as last year’s Pitchfire winner realizes its vision of relieving construction workers from the burden of drilling holes upward into concrete ceilings.
“We believe the window of opportunity is perfect right now for this,” said Konrad Fagertun, founder and business developer of Sogndal, Norway-based nLink. “The equipment is available, and people are using building information files, or BIM, which are similar to CAD but with more information on the construction site, including the type of light bulbs and even the color of paint. That’s a lot to comprehend for people but perfect data for a robot to keep track of.”
Fagertun learned about the Pitchfire competition during a Robotics Business Review webinar on mobile robotics that mentioned the 2014 RoboBusiness event. He and his colleagues quickly made travel arrangements and got the last spot at Pitchfire. Their hasty preparation paid off, because nLink won the startup competition.
“It was extremely rewarding,” Fagertun said. “We got to talk to people from MIT, Harvard, other robotics companies, and potential investors.”
Robots gets a laser focus
“We’ve been very lucky; we’ve had no big challenges,” said Fagertun. “We overcame positioning problems with a combination of cameras and lasers.”
Technology from Leica Geosystems has enabled nLink to get to millimeter precision within the past month, “much better than we hoped,” Fagertun said. “It reduces the need for human input.”
The Mobile Building Robot combines steps. “If you need to drill 200,000 holes in a ceiling, say in a shopping mall, you’d need to measure up starting points, put up laser lines, mark points, then drill,” explained Fagertun. “The robot can do it in one operation, with precise positioning. That’s where the real savings are.”
The main benefits of the Mobile Building Robot are increased productivity and efficiency. “The construction industry has small margins, and it’s hard to compete, in part because of new safety and health regulations,” said Fagertun.
An additional benefit is that an industrial vacuum on the robotic platform gets rid of almost all dust and debris, against which human workers would need to be protected, Fagertun said.
Reducing strain, increasing opportunities for construction workers
Not only is drilling holes in concrete ceilings time-consuming and expensive, but it’s also hard on workers who must drill upward. The Mobile Building Robot puts much less strain on workers, who can instead focus on what they do best.
“People can spend more time doing what they’re trained to do as electricians or plumbers, and they can avoid arm, neck, shoulder, and back strain,” Fagertun explained.
Reducing Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disease (WMSD) is a major benefit of the Mobile Building Robot. “I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘I want to do this work,’ or, ‘I could do this better or faster,’” said Fagertun.
In fact, the robot could create jobs for former construction workers.
“People who have been hurt can get back to work controlling a robot. Their experience makes them perfect operators, without having to lift anything,” Fagertun noted. “Instead of using young, inexperienced people who get hurt, we can now use experienced guys, who can easily control a robot with an iPad.”
He added that the user interface, which was designed with industry input, doesn’t require a computer engineering background, and the nLink app can be customized for Android tablets.
nLink helps builders get off the starting blocks
The pilot customer, Vintervoll AS, has joined nLink on tests and small-scale pilot projects. The electrical contractor’s first full-scale deployment will be a large apartment building of about five stories and a garage. The total area is about 23,000 square feet (7,000 square meters).
While the project will begin in May, smaller projects have begun in commercial buildings. “We’re also holding a competition [in which] one floor is a robot and one floor is manual. It’s interesting to see which is faster,” said Fagertun.
Initial tests have shown that the Mobile Building Robot is five times faster than humans at drilling holes in ceilings, and in some cases, it’s even faster.
“We’re starting with one operator per robot, but the next version will decrease input from humans, so one operator could control several robots,” Fagertun said. “A large space, like a mall or airport, could have several robots working together on one level.”
The Mobile Building Robot could do other jobs after drilling holes in a ceiling, such as placing a plastic plug for a screw or hook for drop ceilings or lamps. It might also drill holes in walls or floors, but the hardest part for human workers is the ceiling, said Fagertun.
Mobile Building Robots as a Service
Fagertun said that nLink is offering the Mobile Building Robot as a service, similar to how other construction equipment is rented or leased rather than bought outright. There is no pricing yet for the U.S. market, but if the robot is five or more times faster than human workers, it could significantly reduce costs and increase productivity, Fagertun said.
“Total contractors will appreciate being able to finish projects earlier,” he said. “The robot could help everything from total construction to contractors, electricians — anyone who mounts equipment to ceilings.”
Another pilot customer in Norway is Holen Installation, and nLink has talked with some of the largest construction firms in Scandinavia, including AF Gruppen, Skanska, and Statsbygg. And that’s just the beginning.
After RoboBusiness 2014, nLink received inquiries from the U.S., Denmark, Germany, Singapore, and Sweden. “We’ve also been in contact with businesses in the U.K. and Dallas, and all have been eager,” Fagertun said. “Once we have partners in the U.S., we’ll need distributors. We’re looking for large companies to help us get this out on the market.”
“As far as we know, we’re the first to bring this kind of robotics to the construction site,” said Fagertun. “The potential global market is enormous, and there’s plenty of room for competition. It’s a huge opportunity for nLink to be the market leader, and other entries would help convert skeptics to customers.”