Artificial intelligence (AI) is giving University of Waterloo, Ontario, researchers new insights to help reduce wear-and-tear injuries and boost the productivity of skilled construction workers. Motion sensor data and AI software reveal how expert bricklayers use previously unidentified techniques to limit the loads on their joints—knowledge that can now be passed on to apprentices.
|PHOTO: University of Waterloo|
“People in skilled trades learn or acquire a kind of physical wisdom that they can’t even articulate,” says Waterloo Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Carl Haas. Surprisingly, he adds, research shows master masons don’t follow the standard ergonomic rules taught to novices. Instead, they develop their own ways of working quickly and safely. Examples include more swinging than lifting of blocks and less bending of their backs.
“They’re basically doing the work twice as fast with half the effort—and they’re doing it with higher quality,” observes Haas, who leads mason-centered research with Systems Design Engineering Professor Eihab Abdel-Rahman. In their first study, they analyzed data from bricklayers of various experience levels who wore sensor suits while building a concrete block wall. Data showed seasoned masons put less stress on their bodies, but are able to do much more work than less experienced peers.
A follow-up study to determine how master masons work so efficiently involved the use of sensors to record their movements and AI computer programs to identify patterns of body positions. Researchers plan to do a more in-depth study of how the experts move on the job.
Musculoskeletal injuries are a significant problem in bricklaying, causing many apprentices to drop out and many experienced workers to prematurely wear out. As part of their work, Waterloo researchers are developing a system that uses sensor suits to give trainees immediate feedback so they can modify their movements to reduce stress.
“Skilled masons work in ways we can show are safer, but we don’t quite understand yet how they manage to do that,” explains Hass, who compares their skill to a professional golf swing. “Now we need to understand the dynamics. There is an unseen problem with craft workers who are just wearing out their bodies. It’s not humane and it’s not good for our economy for skilled tradespeople to be done when they’re 50.”