Oct. 13, 2022

Rent-a-robot idea brings creative spark back to building industry

UCalgary architecture prof Alicia Nahmad trains robots to lend an electronic hand in construction
Alicia Nahmad
Alicia Nahmad Michael Platt, University of Calgary

For every flourish of creativity on a construction site, there’s hours of mind-numbing repetition, whether it’s cutting, fastening or forming.

But what if mobile, rentable robots armed with tools could tackle the tedious work, freeing up people to pursue interesting tasks and ideas?

Returning that creative time to construction workers is a key motivator for the founder of MI Toolbox, and Dr. Alicia Nahmad, PhD, says she imagines a less-repetitive building industry will help reinvigorate the trade.

“The idea is not about taking away jobs, it’s about taking away the boring, and bringing back the skill into the trade,” says Nahmad, assistant professor in UCalgary’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

Social Innovation Week

Nahmad’s MI Toolboxvision is in the spotlight as part of Social Innovation Week at UCalgary, which runs from Oct. 11 to 14, as a mashup of activities hosted by faculties, institutes, accelerators, social enterprise, and centres across UCalgary's social innovation ecosystem and community.

MI Toolbox is one of a number of UCalgary projects with a focus on academic research solutions that benefit society, and Nahmad’s PhD in human-robot collaborative (HRC) design inspired the practising architect to use her own robotics and AI research to help the building industry.

MI Toolbox is described as a “human-machine collaboration” that merges design, engineering and fabrication technologies with traditional craft, while seeking to develop “a symbiotic relationship between the human body and the digital tools.”

A box full of possibilities

What this means for the construction industry is a room-sized box being delivered to the job site, containing a robotic arm programmed to complete any repetitive task that would otherwise take hours from a person’s workday.

It might be forming concrete parts, cutting and drilling wood, or assembling trusses — pretty much any job a person can do now, the robotic arm can do as well, using a variety of interchangeable tools.

Nahmad says that not only will this take away the dreary, limited skill work that plagues the industry, but will also attract newcomers to the building community, including more women.

“The robot will be doing the work inside of the box, and they can focus on the more interesting and complex parts of the job,” she says.

Armed to handle difficult building techniques

The robots can also handle difficult building techniques that might otherwise not be possible for smaller crews, allowing small companies to exist alongside the mega-builders, who produce much of their material offsite or by using massive, expensive machines.

“Using robotic technology allows us to digitize the small and medium enterprises in the construction trade that may not have access to the digital machinery, which needs a lot of space to be stored and is very expensive,” explains Nahmad.

“The idea is making the technology accessible to them by packing as much as possible into the robot arm, and making them accessible to the trades.”

Meet the MI Toolbox team at the Social Innovator Celebration

MI Toolbox is a current fellow in the Research to Social Innovation Incubator (R2SI) run by Innovate Calgary and will be featured at this years Social Innovator Celebration on Oct. 13 at 4 p.m. At this event you can connect with some of our city's most remarkable socially purposed ventures and innovators, get support and expert advice for your social enterprise and provide input on the Social Innovation Hub.

Innovate Calgary is the innovation transfer and business incubator centre for the University of Calgary. As part of the Office of the Vice-President (Research) portfolio and as a member of the UCalgary innovation ecosystem, we work closely with researchers, faculty, and students to help bridge the gap between discovery and creating economic and societal impact.

Social Innovation Week puts the spotlight on those who help mobilize academic research into solutions that benefit society. From Oct. 11 to 14 participate in a mashup of activities hosted by members of UCalgary’s vast ecosystem and community. 

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