“The construction industry is starting to experience a shift toward prefabrication and modular building across a lot of different categories, and this is helping to alleviate these challenges,” Blank continues, “because if you can manufacture construction materials, elements, even entire buildings or components of buildings offsite and bring them to the site and install them and assemble them, then you can be more efficient.”
Toggle works out of a factory in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn to manufacture rebar cages using a robotic arm, software, tools and learnings from their time at URBAN-X, constructing rebar cages that are shipped to construction and infrastructure project sites, where they are installed before being covered in concrete. It’s a system that is working well in its early stages, says Blank.
However, the issue of automation of work raises questions about the role of humans, the loss of jobs, and the dignity of work. Using robots to complete unwanted and even dangerous tasks makes sense in an industry facing a shortage of workers, but the idea of artificial intelligence as a threat to human employees continues to stoke fear. While Toggle’s goal is to double labor productivity and to increase overall production five times over traditional assembly methods, questions remain.
Bill Gates, hardly a technophobe, has suggested that a “robot tax” on companies could slow the transition to automated workforces. Presidential candidate Andrew Yang has made the issue of automation a centerpiece of his campaign, and also asserts that Donald Trump is president today because 4 million jobs were automated out of Democratic strongholds in the Midwestern United States. Automation is not coming — for better and for worse it is here today.
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URBAN-X’s mechanical engineering expert Dean DiPietro discovered this while trying to reverse-engineer a handheld wire-tying tool to see if he could adapt the mechanics to a robotic arm. He says that while it turned out to be possible in theory, it wasn’t the best solution. “Human hand-eye coordination is a fascinating and complex skill that’s difficult to replicate with a robotic system,” Schwind explains. “Because of the inherent inaccuracy of rebar cages, the robot either needs a sophisticated computer vision system to position its tool precisely, or the tool needs to be able to account for huge tolerances to still make a reliable tie.” Eventually, both paths turned out too tricky to solve during the program, but Toggle is continuing to develop its solution.
The idea of robots augmenting manufacturing tasks isn’t exactly foreign to the team at URBAN-X, which is under the BMW Group umbrella as part of MINI’s Innovation and Strategy practice. Back at headquarters in Munich, digitalization is impacting the entire BMW Group production value chain. From press shop to body shop to paint shop, from assembly to logistics—every stage of production benefits from the use of digital processes.
Toggle has similar goals. “We’ve already been able to demonstrate significant gains in productivity when we apply our robotics and automation technology,” to the rebar manufacturing process, says Blank. “The potential for productivity gains are really enormous. Ultimately, I like to emphasize that that’s what this is really about: We are not trying to automate the entire process so much as augment it in a way that we can add a new set of tools to the construction industry’s toolkit. So that more construction projects can happen simultaneously, so that those projects can be larger, so that the workforce that we do have can be safer, more effective and productive.”
Safety is at the core of Toggle’s mission as well. “We’re focusing in on tasks that are repetitive and also physically difficult or dangerous,” Blank says. “With rebar, a lot of that involves the handling of the material itself—literally the heavy lifting. Rebar is an incredibly heavy and often awkward material to work with because these are very long steel bars that are roughly cut so they’re sharp and often bend at angles that make them even more difficult to maneuver. One of the things we’re doing in our approach to pre-assembling rebar cages is utilizing the industrial robots to lift and position bars so that human workers can come in and make connections between the bars to assemble three-dimensional shapes.”