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Increasing use of robots and sensors expected in civils construction

Civils contractors will increasingly use robots and sensors to create structures in futuristic offsite factories, according to the author of recent research.

Duncan White, director of science and industry at consultants Arup, and one of the figures behind its Rethinking the Factory report, said many construction projects could soon feature emerging technologies within industrial facilities.

The report focused on vehicle production facilities and the way robots, 3D printers and sensors would revolutionise processes.

White said the civil and structural engineering sectors would increasingly mimic the automotive industry.

“We are seeing a big move to offsite construction material production,” he said. “Most contractors we work with have a degree of offsite manufacturing.

“We see this as a trend. It improves health and safety and quality as well as reducing time and cost.”

The increasing use of offsite facilities means the civils sector could benefit from many of the technologies expected to alter the face of manufacturing, White said.

“In 10 years’ time I see robots and robotic machinery being used in offsite construction facilities, rather than cranes and forklift trucks,” he said.

“I also think the factory will be more of a showroom, with clients keen to see how their products are developing before they arrive on site.

“We see robots in a factory putting pipework and key controls into modules that can be put together on site. Bridges and other structures could be made like this.”

This process will allow smoother, safer, quicker and ultimately cheaper production, White said.

He added that sensors would eventually be built into structures and connected to the internet.

“This will allow maintenance regimes to be planned according to situation rather than visual inspections, and improve the lifecycle costs of materials,” said White.

“Materials themselves will continue to advance, with more strong, insect-like materials, and self-healing products. These will be useful in civil engineering.”

Arup’s report said it hoped to help on the way towards a “fourth industrial revolution”.

It foresaw a time when robots and humans worked closely together in production facilities.

“As production lines and machines become more advanced and specialised, companies must also invest more in training and specialised equipment to enable the workforce to manage and operate complex production lines,” it said.

“There will be a heightened need for skilled workers and managers who are adept in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, as manufacturing shifts to more complex and technological processes. Collectively, this will lead to a shift to safer, more highly skilled jobs in manufacturing.”

The report added that factories would increasingly be used to lure and communicate with customers.

“Many companies have built sophisticated customer experiences around their factories,” it said. “These showroom experiences are part of the larger trend of customers demanding connected product experiences.”

The report said there was an opportunity for factory owners to adapt their spaces to enable customer experiences to take place. An example in the report showed just how advanced the offsite construction facilities of the future may look.

“Chrysler is taking this idea one step further with a virtual reality experience of its factory floor,” said the report. “Users put on a headset to experience a four-minute, 4D immersive experience of how the 2015 Chrysler 200 is made.

“Users can interact with the car in real-time via the headset while exploring the three aspects of the car’s building process.”  

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