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Construction Goes Robotic
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Construction Goes Robotic
Since the Neolithic Era, humans have been slowly honing the art and science of construction. Even though some of history’s most impressive construction feats were built by hand, introducing machinery drastically improved the building process. But like many inventions of the Industrial Revolution, these were big, dumb machines that required people to be constantly at the wheel. As technology gets smarter, new machines that can do more than mimic human muscles are becoming more common on construction sites. Robots that build the world.
Today’s interview features the work of KEWAZO (pronounced κε-βά-ζο from κατασκευάζω), a pioneer in construction robotics, whose lifting robot for scaffold builders is already used at major construction sites, industrial plants, and shipyards worldwide. Eirini Psallida, co-founder & Software Lead, and her other five co-founders have raised over $19m in funding and built a team of almost 50 people from mechanical engineering to data science, robotics, and more.
Let’s get to it.
One of the most remarkable things about construction robotics is the breadth of tasks that can be automated. The entire category fills all of the big Ds of automation — dull, dirty and (often) dangerous. It’s also one area that has become increasingly difficult to staff. Eirini, you’re the best person to introduce us to this space.
EP: Thanks, Alex. Happy to share our journey with KEWAZO.
You started the company in 2016, long before the recent robotics hype cycle. What led you to focus on construction robotics?
EP: Construction is an industry with a very high labour shortage worldwide. There is insufficient supply to cover demand, and the shortage is predicted to worsen substantially. Simply put, more construction workers are retiring as fewer join the trade. Hence, automation through technology, and robots in particular, becomes indispensable.
KEWAZO started as a university hackathon project. We were master’s students at the Technical University of Munich, and two of my co-founders had previously done research on construction robotics. The initial idea was very different — highly mobile robots like Boston Dynamics’ — but we soon decided to pivot. We connected with several German companies (going on-site, interviewing construction managers, workers, etc.). We figured out that automating scaffolding — setting up the temporary structure on the outside of a building made of wooden planks and metal poles, used by workers while building, repairing, or cleaning the building — would be a great way to enter the industry and potentially life-saving for workers, too.
Many accidents happen annually because workers are hanging 50m or 100m above the ground to transport materials, or they just throw things that are metal, heavy and dangerous. They often work in extreme weather conditions from -30°C (we had a project in Finland where we tested our equipment in such freezing temperatures) to 50°C (e.g. in the desert). Sooner or later, people won’t be willing to do this work. It’s physically demanding and dangerous; thereby, it’s getting extremely challenging to find ten or more workers per project (that’s how many are required for large sites).
What does the product look like? I’d love to dive further into the technology.
EP: Our first certified product is LIFTBOT, an automated hoist system that ascends and descends scaffolding systems, combining advanced mechanical components with software and data analytics. It takes only two workers around 20 minutes to install, is fully battery-powered and wireless, and can arrive at its destination without manual interference. The workers load the platform above the robot with scaffolding material, and the robot moves up and down on the rails with the press of a button. LIFTBOT has been used in many iconic construction sites and leading industrial plants globally.
We use two battery-powered DC motors that lift over 100kg of material. The robot has one of the best safety-level components to ensure safety at all levels — similar to what’s used in elevators and the metro. Moreover, we have integrated sensors that retrieve data from the battery, motors, safety system, etc., and we can get insights on humidity, temperature, altitude, and GPS, among others, through software that runs on an industrial-certified microcontroller. This generates information (previously calculated with pen and paper) related to productivity insights and predictive maintenance, including how many tons of materials were transferred per day, the number of days required to finish the project, etc.
Given construction is an industry that lacks technology adoption (and despite the apparent benefits here), what was the initial feedback, and how did you overcome any pushback?
EP: Our robot is the evolution of conventional lifts used in construction for years. But these lack automation. They are not allowed in many industrial sites, e.g. nuclear plants, as they require electricity power. They are much larger, therefore they cannot operate everywhere, e.g. inside towers. Finally, they need more people to operate, even ten+ workers.
Even though the benefits looked obvious, we faced a lot of pushback in the early days from potential customers, especially in Europe. Using a robot seemed sci-fi, and they were not convinced they needed one. In some sites, workers might even transfer materials up and down with a box and a rope... So, it took time to educate the industry and prove our solution’s value through several demos and free pilots.
What technologies are you most excited about and you think can drive the next stage of adoption in robotics construction?
EP: Computer vision! There has been a significant evolution in hardware. The cost of cameras has dropped, so it’s relatively straightforward to integrate them into a product. Data is the new oil, and with computer vision, you can get all sorts of critical information from the building, the construction site, the machinery, etc.
Thank you so much for taking the time, Eirini!
EP: Thank you, Alex. Just before we wrap up, I wanted to say that building a hardware company has been extremely rewarding despite its challenges and the fact that it’s often more capital-intensive than software. Making things in the physical world requires a whole new set of skills and perhaps patience. Still, the feeling of changing the paradigm in a traditional industry is unmatched. We were one of the first companies to kickstart the robotics construction wave in Europe, and every step of the journey has been a learning opportunity.
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