Robots have arrived and engineers worldwide are redesigning the construction process. But the UK is being left behind.
These are the conclusions of the 15th International Symposium on Automation and Robotics in Construction (ISARC) held at Bauma last week.
ISARC president, Professor Jonathan O'Brien explained that the first genuinely commercial automated products are now available in the form of computer guided earthmoving machines (see main feature). He claimed: 'The challenge is for civil engineers to redesign the construction process.'
The bad news for British engineers is that although British academics were enthusiastic, UK contractors were nowhere to be seen.
Professor Skibniewski, a member of ISARC, said, 'The biggest challenge is for civil engineers to redesign construction tasks and provide for better feedback between design and construction.'
He advised engineers to introduce some sort of order to the building site. 'Engineers must think about materials layout, innovative ideas for structural components and new materials and they must select which tasks are economic and safe enough to be automated.'
Delegates from Shimizu, the Japanese contracting giant which leads the way in automated construction, explained that to introduce automation to building sites it is necessary to adopt 'the concept of the assembly line' in the construction process.
Engineers must therefore 'modularise' the construction process - break it down into repeatable tasks.
Shimizu has incorporated this concept into the construction of two steel frame tower blocks in Japan. Each identical floor was treated as the product of an assembly line. The roof was constructed first. Then the whole building was jacked up a floor at a time.
The delegates believe this process will soon be possible with concrete frames.
Until now automated products have only been used in hazardous environments where humans are not an option. But driven by the desire to reduce labour costs it will not be long before robotics technology will be commonplace in high volume, simple repetitive tasks such as muckshifting.