The layer is about 10 cm wide and 4 cm high. The robot’s mouthpiece lays the concrete layer upon layer up to 1 meter per second, exactly as it is drawn in a computer program. It can turn into a new house or the foundation of a wind turbine. Today it will be a 6 meter wide version of Politiken’s logo. There are no bricklayers present here in the production hall in Nordhavn in Copenhagen. If there were, they would probably have looked at what is going on here, in the same way that the carriage makers of the last century would have viewed Ford’s car factories.
One man controls the giant 3D printer with his iPad, while another makes sure it doesn’t lack gravel, cement and water. The two can make a detached house in just a few days. The largest house to date, which stands just north of Munich in Germany, is three storeys and almost 10 metres high.
COBOD, who produces the 3D printer, was established four years ago. The first house, which stands on a windswept corner in Nordhavn’s industrial district, took two months to build. Two years later, it took three days. Most recently, three houses have been built in Oman in eight days, including moving and preparing the printer. The expectation is that during the year you can make a house in a single day.
“We just made so many mistakes in the beginning,” says Henrik Lund-Nielsen, who founded and runs the company.
Also, the cost has been dramatically reduced. The first houses cost much more than if you had had a bricklayer do it. Today, it can be hip as hap financially. The expectation is that it can be made significantly cheaper already this year.
Thus, the large broad world market opens up for the Danish company. Marketing Director Philip Knudsen compares it to the mobile phone. The first models were furiously expensive and were only used by geeks and people who absolutely wanted to be first. But once they came on the market at a manageable price, things went furiously fast, and that’s exactly where the bricklaying robots have come to.
The world leader in the industry Henrik Lund-Nielsen expects a real explosion and has established offices in Miami covering the US markets, in Kuala Lumpur, which covers Asia, and is in the process of opening an office in Dubai to cover the Middle East. So far, however, it is a very modest market. Cobod has sold 60 machines, giving it a market share of about 60 percent. Henrik Lund-Nielsen can thus call himself the world leader in the industry.
Sales reflect slightly different needs in individual markets. In the United States, which has bought relatively the most machines, it is primarily a lack of manpower that drives the interest. In the Middle East, they are very concerned about the freedom and flexibility that architects are given. Ordinary concrete houses are typically built in standard square modules. With 3D printing, architects can draw as many arches, slopes and patterns as they like.
Africa has been a surprisingly large market. “I just couldn’t understand it when the first orders came in. You can buy a Kenyan construction worker for DKK 300 a month. It makes no sense to buy a robot worth several million kroner to do his job, Lund-Nielsen said. “It turns out that our African customers primarily go for two things: speed and quality – or built-in skills, if you will. Both are sorely in short supply in Africa. You may be able to buy labor cheaply, but people who can build quickly and with quality can be few and far between. At least that’s what customers tell us,”Says Henrik Lund-Nielsen, whose 3D printers have built 14 buildings in four different African countries.
Bricklayers become unemployed
Henrik Lund-Nielsen is fully aware that he will probably make a lot of bricklayers unemployed once the printed houses become standard. ‘Disrupter’ he calls himself with pride in his voice.
“It’s a deeply outdated mindset that we need to hold back technology to preserve some jobs. It is precisely how we become richer as a society that we become able to produce more with the same people. Those who are spared by technology go out and find some other work that can enrich society. Or we can all work a little less,” he said.
According to Professor Bent Greve, who researches welfare societies at Roskilde University, the calculation does not quite add up. Among economists, there is a consensus that robots and artificial intelligence will eliminate about half of the job functions we know today. They will largely be replaced by other functions in the same job and completely new jobs will be created. But overall, there will be 10 percent fewer jobs.
“There is no doubt that automation and artificial intelligence are part of the solution to the labour shortage, especially in the private sector. We know from experience that everything that can be automated will be. But it affects very differently in different sectors, Greve said.
Digital solutions are quickly embraced, while physical robots are a little more sluggish
Thomas Juul Andersen, head of the Danish Technological Institute expects Cobod’s mason robots to turn the construction industry upside down. “We expect half of the jobs in the food industry to disappear with the new ways of producing. When we get the fully self-driving cars, a lot of jobs disappear. On the other hand, it’s a little harder when we talk about personal care,” he says.
There are not only skilled and unskilled workers who can be spared. The new ChatGPT illustrates how widely new technology can save traditional job functions. It can provide knowledge work and even creative productions for free. “It is very difficult to predict what qualifications will be needed. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that we establish an education and training system that makes it possible to constantly build on top of or completely change direction, Greve said.
Conservatism in construction
However, the Danish masons can take it easy, at least for a little while longer. So far, only two COBOD printers have been sold to the Danish market. DI Construction has no explanation and forwards the question to Dansk Beton, who forwards it to Thomas Juul Andersen, head of the Danish Technological Institute.
Europe lacks manpower, as it has not done since the 1970s. So do many other countries around the world. It challenges economic growth, threatens welfare benefits, pressures employers to treat workers differently and exposes Europe’s difficulties in attracting skilled workers from outside. He sees several possible explanations. The technical one says that rules and technical standards in construction do not yet take into account 3D technology.
“But then there is also a certain conservatism in construction. Digital solutions are quickly embraced, while physical robots are a little more sluggish. Quite different in the US and China, where construction robots are more advanced,” he says.
Henrik Lund-Nielsen recognizes both explanations. When the test house was to be built in Nordhavn, it was a bit of a struggle to get the municipality’s approval, because the robot cannot immediately print with the pre-approved concrete types, and because Henrik Lund-Nielsen wanted a large portion of recycled materials in the concrete. Resource savings are an important part of the economy of the robots, and sustainability in construction – one of the biggest climate culprits – was an important part of the motivation for establishing the company.
“For the same reason, we have hired a small army of architects who, among other things, figure out how to adapt the structure to meet the very different requirements that exist around,” he says. The house in Nordhavn is therefore equipped with a strictly unnecessary load-bearing column, which means that the house meets the technical requirements. In addition, it is built with a concrete with a high cement content, which in terms of climate implies a greater emission than Henrik Lund-Nielsen actually likes.
Thus, according to him, the real explanation is the widespread conservatism in Danish construction. Cobod has about 100 employees, and many of them are working on developing the robot. The next steps are to get it running on rails so that it can build terraced houses in long lanes. And a robotic arm that can plaster and paint the walls as they are printed.
This will save even more jobs.
By: Jens Bostrup, Politiken
Disclaimer: This article has been translated into Enligsh from Danish by COBOD. Link to the original article: https://politiken.dk/udland/art9119729/Dansk-byggerobot-udfordrer-murere-i-hele-verden