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Robotics and automation in BE: Dream big, start small, move fast

14 Oct 2022

By BCA

In the Dutch city of Nijmegen, there is a 30-metre-long bridge across a river that was churned out by a printer. Constructed in 2021, this 3D-printed concrete bridge originated from a Built Environment (BE) academic’s keen interest to improve productivity in the construction process.

“I was fascinated by the idea of printing it. Can I do it better and faster?” said Prof Dr Theo Salet, Dean of the Built Environment Department at Technical University Eindhoven in the Netherlands. The process is quicker and uses less concrete, making it greener for the environment.

 
IR5_8179Prof Dr Theo Salet, Dean of the Built Environment Department at Technical University Eindhoven in the Netherlands
 

He was speaking at a panel discussion on the second day of the International Built Environment Week (IBEW) 2022, where speakers discussed emerging innovations of Robotics and Automation (R&A) in the BE sector and shared their benefits. Harnessing such technologies also a key focus of the newly refreshed BE Industry Transformation Map, which Minister for National Development Desmond Lee had launched a day earlier.

By supporting Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) methods, R&A can help ease the manufacturing process, increase efficiency in assembly, reduce the reliance on manpower and make the BE sector greener.

These are the reasons many global companies are adopting R&A. Among them is British construction and consultancy company Mace, whose latest BE innovation is High Rise Solutions (HRS).

With HRS, prefabricated facades and structural components of each floor are concurrently installed onsite like a jigsaw puzzle. The method was used to construct the N06 – two high-rise residential blocks in London – with one floor finished in just 50 hours.

Compared to traditional methods of construction, the project saw 20 per cent fewer workers onsite, 40 per cent less vehicle movement and 70 per cent less waste. The system is versatile too. “The beauty of something like that is it is repetitive,” said Mr Davendra Dabasia, Managing Director at Mace.

INTEGRATED PLANNING, DESIGN AND DELIVERY

From planning and design to development and the realisation of a project onsite, many steps are involved in delivering a well-functioning automation solution.

This is where innovations like HRS allows the team to connect all its production and assembly systems with the integration of digital and data solutions to enable a systematic and smooth construction process. A Digital Twin model is implemented for virtual modelling designs, while prefabricated modular systems form segments such as toilet pods and utility cupboards.

Ultimately it comes down to productivity and doing things in a better way,” said Mr Dabasia of Mace’s push for R&A. “Otherwise the industry will just continue to be too archaic and that doesn’t feel right for our business as we exist to do things differently.”

In Japan, construction firm Kajima Corporation has been keeping up with the automation trend by developing ingenious single-task robots for onsite use. For instance, its Material Carrying Robot (MCR) can fulfil laborious, manual tasks, reducing the time taken to transport cement, bricks and wall panels at the worksite by 30 per cent.

“We target to reduce the smaller processes done by workers and increase their productivity,” said Dr Soungho Chae, Head of the Construction Productivity Team at Kajima.

 
IR5_8102Dr Soungho Chae, Head of the Construction Productivity Team at Kajima
 

A proponent of research and innovation, the company has invested in building an innovation centre in Changi Business Park – slated for completion by June 2023 – to share its knowledge with the BE sector in Singapore.      

UNDERSTANDING BE ECOSYSTEM NEEDS

While the trend of R&A in the BE sector may be growing, industries must be watchful of what systems they can and should automate.

“At times, a high level of automation is not always acceptable for workers and the construction environment might not be suitable for robots,” said Dr Chae. Workers might not have the skillsets to work with a certain technology. To this end, he noted that a clear support line is necessary to change up the construction workflow.           

There is also concern that these solutions might be too costly and may disrupt an already well-functioning process at worksites, said Mr Dabasia.

To better understand the industry’s needs, close collaborations with experts is paramount. “Collaborate and team up with the industry ecosystem and academia,” said Prof Dr Salet.

BCA is involved in various initiatives to promote the adoption of R&A in BE firms, such as the Built Environment Accelerate to Market Programme (BEAMP) and the Built Environment Robotics R&D programme. The authority also facilitates and expedites evaluations, and regulatory clearances, for new R&A innovations used in construction projects.

“As a government agency, we form the bridge between the end adopters and the solution providers,” said Dr Ng Hsiao Piau, Programme Director at BCA.

For those still concerned about taking on new R&A solutions, the best way forward is to get the basics right, noted Mr Dabasia. The end goal for a more efficient work process will then sort itself out, he added.

“Look at your own processes, how you can go about doing it – dream big, start small and start fast,” advised moderator Tan Chee Kiat, Group Director of Engineering at JTC.

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The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) champions the development and transformation of the built environment sector, in order to improve Singapore’s living environment. BCA oversees areas such as safety, quality, inclusiveness, sustainability and productivity, all of which, together with our stakeholders and partners, help to achieve our mission to transform the Built Environment sector and shape a liveable and smart built environment for Singapore.