With the current and continued shortage in labour, an ageing workforce and workplace safety issues, one emerging solution is automation in the construction site.
Builders such as Gammon Construction have invested in a new generation of technology to improve efficiency and relax labour demands. Its robotic Zero G arm, for example, attaches to a mobile platform to help workers manoeuvre heavy equipment as if they were weightless. Its exoskeleton suits help support workers’ backs and allow them to lift heavy loads for a longer period of time.
Both these technologies have already been deployed on construction sites, including a data centre in Tseung Kwan O and the expansion of Ocean Park. A trial run with a curtain wall installation robot on the Murray Building hotel redevelopment project in Central found that the number of workers on site could be reduced by 25 percent.
Gammon’s investments in robot R&D focus not on replacing workers but on increasing productivity, safety and quality.
“It’s not replacing [workers]—you will still need workers on-site. But you do it smartly by helping them do things much easier,” says chief executive Thomas Ho. “The line between the worlds of construction and technology will continue to blur, and there is much, much more innovation to come.”
Certain on-site repetitive processes and jobs, such as tiling, plastering, welding, shovelling and drilling, can be programmable for robots, but trained and experienced craftsmen will still be needed especially when dealing with tolerances, imprecision and creativity.
Robotics will also be essential as prefabrication becomes increasingly popular and necessary, especially with the transition to building information modelling (BIM).
Robots have already taken over manufacturing, mining, agriculture and swathes of health care and transportation, and the construction industry is trying catch up. Industry insiders said the construction sector had been too slow to keep up, notes the South China Morning Post.
“We are a very old industry, but we’re also a very backward industry in terms of technology adoption,” said Kevin O’Brien, executive director for special projects and innovation at Gammon Construction. “We need to change.”
Pushing the Boundaries
Architects have been testing out and experimenting with robots since the 1980s, whether to check building facades or bricklaying, from structurally oscillating brick walls to undulating brick facades.
Over at the research lab in the University of Hong Kong’s Knowles Building, a USD35,000 six-axis robotic arm that can perform a range of architectural-related skills, from drawing and milling to 3D printing and cutting. The possibilities of robotically printed clay bricks as a building material are also being explored.
“With the lab, we are now seeing what we can do to push the boundaries of architecture,” says Christian Lange, a senior lecturer at HKU’s architecture school. “It’s about making precise movements in a three-dimensional space and learning how to use it to create new, meaningful, architectural expressions.”
While such technologies are still in their experimental stages, robots are expected to revolutionise the face of construction in Hong Kong in the next 20 years or so. — Construction+ Online