Using robots to close the gap between designing and making

The construction industry’s approach to design for manufacture and assembly is to use remote off-site factories. Andrew Watts of Newtecnic says greater use of robotics and local, flexible ‘construction laboratories’ is a better way.

The new KAFD metro station facade in Riyadh will be maintained by people, cobots and drones
The new KAFD metro station facade in Riyadh will be maintained by people, cobots and drones
The conventional approach to design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) in construction is to design standard components and then have them made in remote factories to be delivered and assembled on-site.

However, the opportunity now exists for the construction industry to deploy the very latest technology and take a lead in manufacturing using local ‘construction laboratories’. These temporary factories would employ local skilled craftspeople, use locally sourced materials and deploy very advanced production machinery to achieve mass customisation.

Unlike single-purpose DfMA factories, that require years of operation to turn a profit; small, flexible and efficient manufacturing cells are easy to scale through the building cycle. This means that the right equipment will always available to match current needs.

Furthermore, as construction and maintenance robots become more advanced, they will increasingly interact with the construction laboratories; generating, checking, moving and installing both new and replacement building parts.
 

Robot-friendly design

Projects that Newtecnic is currently engineering are planned to deploy construction laboratories from the earliest stages of construction. They are also being designed with future robotics in mind.

For example, we anticipate that inspection, monitoring and precise measurement of normally concealed areas behind panels and within a completed building’s fabric will be executed by small flying drones and robots equipped with lidar and cameras. These will feed data back to the building’s cloud-hosted digital twin.

High-resolution building and system performance data will then be shared with, and coupled to, the on-site construction lab equipped with three-dimensional printers which fabricate components that perfectly fit the structure.

Metro facade project

A recent example is the Zaha Hadid designed facade of the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) metro station in Saudi Arabia, part of the US$22.5 billion Riyadh metro project due for completion 2021 (see photograph).

We have engineered the concrete composite facade as a modular cassette system suitable for future robot access, maintenance and replacement. We envisage that people and cobots will work together cleaning, maintaining and updating the facade over the next 60 years.

There will be a construction laboratory on site using additive manufacturing to make replacement facade panels from the latest materials. And each new component will fit perfectly because it is developed from data collected using lidar scans from the as-built structure.

New methods reduce risk

Industry players and stakeholders are perhaps mistaken in the belief that new methods and technologies present increased risk. In fact, the opposite is true because by using technology it is possible to reduce risk while creating more imaginatively conceived buildings at lower cost that use less energy, are more durable and look better.

They also take less time to make and, on completion, appear effortless. This seemingly impossible list of advantages has been proven across the world where, in partnerships with developers, architects and engineers, collaboration over data reveals absolute truths about buildings.

This article is based on the author’s article in latest issue of the ICE Civil Engineering journal.

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