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Lending a Robotic Hand


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Photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Facing a spike in unit prices and a worsening labor shortage, a major Japanese general contractor is going full-speed ahead testing autonomous construction robots. The goal? Boost productivity by making the worker’s job easier.  

Top Japanese contractor Shimizu Corporation has developed a whole family of autonomous construction robots capable of doing everything from moving materials to installing ceilings and floors to welding steel columns. The robots are being tested inside Shimzu’s Institute of Technology Robot Laboratory and are scheduled to be put to use in the construction of a high-rise building in Osaka later this year and at several large construction sites throughout Tokyo starting in 2019.

“A pressing issue for the construction industry is how to find labor while raising productivity."

“A pressing issue for the construction industry is how to find labor while raising productivity. Shimizu believes that the key to raising productivity is better working conditions, higher wages and more off-days,” Shimizu said in a company news release.

Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism declared 2016 the start of a "productivity revolution" for the country’s construction industry. It was then that Shimizu went to work building the Shimz Smart Site, a “next-generation production system in which robots and humans will collaborate to move construction projects forward.”

After 18 months and nearly $10 million invested in developing their Shimz Smart Site in collaboration with universities and other industry partners, Shimizu’s autonomous system is undergoing the next phase of testing at their robot laboratory. Three robots are currently being trialled: The Robo-Carrier (transports materials horizontally), the Robo-Welder (welds steel columns), and the Robo-Buddy (multi-use robot that performs ceiling and floor work), each represents a stool leg of Shimizu’s Smart Site concept.

After 18 months and nearly $10 million invested in developing their Shimz Smart Site in collaboration with universities and other industry partners.

The bots receive instructions from a human operator communicating through a tablet and then perform their assigned tasks, adjusting automatically as the situation requires and determining their positions using spatial data gathered by lasers. That data is then compared to existing BIM-acquired spatial data to provide the robots with real-time location awareness.

The Robo-Carrier carries materials chosen by the human operator onto a temporary elevator, it then transports those supplies, approximately one ton at a time, to their programmed destination, completely unmanned. It’s also equipped with a collision avoidance system so it can alter its path if a person or piece of machinery gets too close.

The Robo-Welder, equipped with a six-axis robotic arm, uses laser shape measurement to determine the precise contours of a steel column to be welded and uses those measurements to calculate the best and cleanest place to put the welding material.

The Robo-Buddy has two six-axis robotic arms that install ceiling boards. Its sensors recognize the position of the ceiling grid frame material, and one arm lifts and positions a ceiling board to its proper position. The other arm then screws the board in place. The company says it’s looking to see if the Robo-Buddy can perform similar work at the planned Osaka high-rise.

In 2014, there were approximately 3.4 million construction workers in Japan, a number expected to decline to just 2.2 million by 2025.

In 2014, there were approximately 3.4 million construction workers in Japan, a number expected to decline to just 2.2 million by 2025, according to Shimizu Corp. and reported by ForConstructionPros. Between the ongoing labor shortfall, preparing for hosting the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics, and jumping unit prices for construction starts, Japan’s construction industry is being squeezed from all sides. 

While it remains to be seen how the systems will perform on an active jobsite, if successful, Shimizu’s autonomous robot construction system could be a major step toward meeting Japan's goals for improving productivity by giving human workers some much-needed support.

If you liked this article, here are a few eBooks and webinars you may enjoy:

Robotics

Benchmarking Productivity on the Jobsite

Go Lean: Cutting Waste & Increasing Productivity

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