Will Technology End Construction Defect Litigation? – How Robotics and 3D Printing Are Already Changing the Construction Industry

Haight Brown & Bonesteel LLP
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As implausible as it might be, the days for construction defect litigation could be numbered. By 2026, it might be gone for good thanks to exploding technological applications. You might be thinking "well, I've seen many suits involving buildings where there were no real defects, the lawyers will just find something new to complain about." While this is a fair observation, the advantages of these technologies will threaten the existence of the business model that is more about leveraging cash from a builder or contractor and less about actual defects.

Just ten years ago, we would have never imagined the technological advances that we now take for granted. For instance, less than ten years ago the first smart phone had not yet hit the market. Modern day smartphones are at least ten times more powerful than the first supercomputers that were used to design atomic bombs or model the expansion of the universe. In fact, I had to chuckle at myself the other day when I was exasperated to learn my one-hour flight back home did not have Wi-Fi. Really? That didn’t even exist five years ago!

Homebuilders and contractors are adopting technology in fits and starts as they realize the enormous return on investment that it brings. Now things are getting even more interesting with advancements in robotics and 3D printing.

Robotics: Robots are already here and they are going to become more prevalent. Examples of this include a report from MIT Technology Review from September 2015 that documented a robot named SAM (Semi-Automated Mason) that could lay bricks three times as fast as a normal mason.

According to the designer, “SAM’s purpose is to leverage human jobs, not entirely replace them—a human mason can lay about 300 to 500 bricks a day, while SAM can lay about 800 to 1,200 bricks a day. One human plus one SAM equals the productivity of having four or more masons on the job.” According to the article, SAM is smart as it is productive: “The robot can correct for the differences between theoretical building specifications and what’s actually on site” according to SAM’s designer.

The applications for robots go well beyond brick laying. The technology will eventually be adopted that would allow robots to perform just about any construction activity from foundations to framing, installing windows, roofs, floor coverings, and just about anything else. When a robot is programmed to install 16d nails twelve inches on center, that’s what it will do. It will not install 8d nails sixteen inches on center. When robots are programmed on the proper sequence to flash a building exterior, it will be done that way, with the proper materials. A significant amount of construction defects arise when the trades do not follow the schedule and do things out of order. Utilizing robots will put these sequencing issues to an end, will improve the quality of construction by eliminating mistakes, and will greatly enhance the quality of the finished product.

Robots will go beyond land-based units and into the sky with robotic drones. As reported in Building Design + Construction, the Swiss firm Gramazio & Kohler collaborated on project in France in which a team of as many as 50 flying robots built a structurally stable, twenty foot tower out of 1,500 Styrofoam blocks. While the experiment was on a basic structure, the technological advances of drones will likely enable drone robots to do all sorts of work in the future, such as installing and welding steel on high-rise buildings and carrying and pouring concrete, among other many applications.There is another benefit to robots and that is the simple fact that labor costs are a significant factor in the cost of any structure. California’s shortage of affordable housing has reached crisis levels and the use of robots could very well improve home affordability in a big way by reducing not only labor costs by the time it takes to build a home.

Obviously, there is a down side of robots (and 3D printing), and that involves the need for less labor to get a project completed. The construction industry will not be alone in addressing the moral and ethical dilemmas associated of displacing humans with robots. Robotics have been common place in many other industries for years, most notably the automotive industry, so the key is to find a responsible middle ground when weighing the benefits provided by using robots against job displacement.

3D Printing: On December 18, 2015 we wrote about the uses of 3D printing. The uses of 3D printing seem to be growing every day. The uses of this technology have even caught the attention of President Obama when he mentioned in one State of Union address that “3D printing will revolutionize the way we make almost everything”. Recently, scientists have said they can print human organs using 3D printing and a company in Arizona even produced a car using 3D technology.

But what is 3D printing? “3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.” In the construction process, these printers can be very large and not something that you can put on your desk.”

Companies such as Contour Crafting are now providing the technology to print entire structures. According to its website, “Contour Crafting (CC) is a layered fabrication technology…has great potential for automating the construction of whole structures as well as sub-components. Using this process, a single house or a colony of houses, each with possibly a different design, may be automatically constructed in a single run, embedded in each house all the conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning.

A Dutch company is building a steel bridge in Amsterdam using 3-D printing. In a very notable story, a Chinese company built ten houses using 3-D technology, but some controversy exists on that project because of claims that the company might have infringed on Contour Crafting’s patents. Recently, a team of UC Berkeley researches created a nine-foot high 3D cement-printed structure.

Thus, 3D is not just hyperbole; it is happening, and has wide-ranging positive and negative implications.

According to the website ForConstructionPros.com, some advantages include:

• Faster and accurate construction
• Reduced labor cost
• Reduced waste generation and increased use of recycled products
• Reduced health and safety risk

Some disadvantages include:

• Reduced employee numbers
• Multiple printers needed for multiple applications
• Transportation and storage of the printers
• Systemic problems if printer not properly designed or programmed

Technology has always moved our society forward, but the pace of technology seems to be accelerating more rapidly than ever before. As we invent new things, we find new ways to use them. Change is inevitable and builders and contractors must adapt or face extinction. Consider how disadvantaged your company would be if it was still doing things like it did in the 1990’s. Now, consider what it needs to do to adapt. Embracing evolving technology is a must to remain competitive. This new technology will also lead to significant downturn in construction defect litigation, maybe even its eventual demise.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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