Boston Dynamics construction leader on robotics and innovation in the industry
BY: Corie Cheeseman
For our latest Trailblazers article, we spoke with Brian Ringley, construction technology manager at Boston Dynamics. Ringley delves into his career background in construction automation, why innovation has historically been a challenge for the siloed construction industry, and how an innovative approach to business can help unleash ROI.
Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director, innovation officer for Oracle Global Business Units, led the discussion.
BK: Tell us about your current role and how your career has evolved since you started in the industry.
BR: I’m a construction technology manager for Boston Dynamics. I work specifically with the Spot robot and with our construction customers to ensure that Spot is adding value to their projects.
I also help to foster a broader ecosystem of apps and hardware that are relevant to the customers’ work to ensure that everything is integrated with Spot through the Spot Software Development Kit (Spot SDK).
I came to Spot initially as a customer. Prior to Boston Dynamics, I was a construction automation researcher for WeWork. I was doing a lot of work with industrialized construction and off-site pre-fabrication as well as with understanding how to better capture data on jobsites.
I was educated as an architect before that. I earned a Master of Architecture from the University of Cincinnati. I’ve always had a love for technology, and over time it’s been a progression of understanding how to maximize impact on this industry.
The disciplines that are required to come together and build buildings are very siloed. It became clear to me that no matter how innovative I was within an architecture practice, innovation wouldn’t survive beyond the scope of the architect’s work in the contract.
That led me to the vertically integrated company WeWork. We could test ideas that went from end to end, from design to manufacturing, to construction—and even building operation—to learn from post-occupancy analysis.
I became interested in how to better establish data-capture programs, put reality capture tech on construction sites, and integrate that data back into the design-to-delivery process in order to establish a positive feedback loop. That’s what I’ve been trying to do at Boston Dynamics.
BK: What’s your view of the state of innovation in the industry generally?
BR: I’m obviously biased because the customer companies that I work with at Boston Dynamics are some of the most bleeding edge innovation groups in the world. They’re the ones putting legged robots on their jobsites.
That said, there’s been a real wake-up call now with COVID-19. The construction industry has become quite active with innovation and research and development.
There’s a lot of venture capital money also flowing into startups that serve a lot of those problems. A lot of really good work is happening.
It’s about having the time and energy to focus and solve the hard problems. When I was working in innovation groups in construction and architecture companies, there were the same issues I was talking about before.
There were a lot of smart people, but they couldn’t have a lot of impact on where most of the money was spent and where most of the hard problems are, which is on the construction site.
It was in the general contractors’ hands to lead this. But obviously, every stakeholder—from owners to architects to engineers to the subcontracted trades on site—all stand to benefit from this innovation work.
BK: What do you see as the biggest challenges to innovation?
BR: The biggest challenges to innovation that I’ve seen are typically the limitations of traditional business models in the industry. It’s not a novel concept that innovation is not a technological problem but a business problem.
There are good and bad reasons that our industry is as siloed as it is. A lot of this has to do with the ability for different groups to take on risk and shoulder that, which is understandable.
You must combine innovative and contemporary approaches to share the risk of collaborative building delivery. That risk can be shared either through partnerships or through vertical integration.
Through an entrepreneurial or innovative approach to business, you can unleash the ROI of the things that you’re trying to do and not be hampered or hamstrung by those older models of business.
BK: How can an organization foster a culture of innovation?
BR: When we’re thinking about innovation in the context of working with our customers, it’s about staying humble and learning from them. I was obviously hired here because of my background in architecture and construction.
The engineers here are brilliant roboticists, but we don’t presume to know everything about the kinds of business challenges facing our different customer markets.
COVID-19 has been particularly distressing. It is harder to have those conversations when you’re standing on the jobsite with your customer and you’re seeing what’s happening in person.
That’s where the innovation comes through: understanding the business problem and working backward. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of saying, “Hey, we have a great technology, let’s figure out how to shove it into the construction site.”
It’s been gratifying to speak with customers who have worked backwards from a business problem and derived Spot as a solution or a portion of the solution to their problem.
Stay tuned for part II, in which Ringley shares his perspective on how technologies such as industrialized construction and field robotics could greatly impact the industry, as well as his thoughts on the future of AI and machine learning construction.
See Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot in action at the Oracle Industries Innovation Lab, where Oracle works with customers and partners to co-innovate and transform industries.