Built by robots22 January 2020
From a science museum in Seoul to a conference centre completed with robotic assistance in just 100 days, new projects suggest that automation may be heading for the mainstream of the construction industry. Patrick Kingsland speaks to architects driving this trend about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
With its curved, egg-shaped facade, white metal cladding and glass base, the plans for a Robot Science Museum in Seoul from Turkish architecture studio Melike Altinisik Architects (MAA) promises to stand out – even among the skyscrapers, high-tech subway systems and Buddhist temples that make up the South Korean megacity.
But the building, which is due to open its doors in 2022 with a mission to increase public knowledge and interest in robots, will also stand out for another reason unrelated to its striking exterior: it will be constructed almost entirely by robots, creating a possible blueprint for future robotic construction.
The huge facade panels, for example, will be moulded, assembled, welded and polished by robots before being hoisted into place by robotic arms. A 3D printer will also be used to construct the concrete base, while drones will buzz overhead to map the site and perform crucial inspections.
“From design, manufacturing to construction and services, robots will be in charge,” said Melike Altinisik, MAA’s founder and design principal. “In other words, the Robot Science Museum will start its ‘first exhibition’ with ‘its own construction’ by robots on-site.”
Architecture’s robot revolution
The museum is the latest in a string of new buildings that have been designed and constructed using robotics – a technology that promises to transform the architecture, engineering and construction industries, which currently involve huge amounts of intensive, often inefficient, manual labour.
“Automation is about trying to get workers away from tedious and dangerous work, trying to improve productivity and trying to come out with faster projects within budget,” says Borja García de Soto, an assistant professor of civil and urban engineering at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Last November, the Chinese firm Archi-Union Architects used robotassisted design and construction methods to complete a conference centre in Shanghai in a jaw-dropping 100 days.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a team led by architect and designer Neri Oxman also recently developed a digital fabrication system that uses a ‘swarm’ of robots to construct high-strength tubular structures. The US-based architecture and design firm Perkins+Will will soon start using a mobile robot that is capable of performing a number of in-house architectural design activities at some of its offices.
“We are interested not only in making physical buildings with robots but in how can we automate some of the actual design process,” says Andrew Tsay Jacobs, director of the Building Technology Lab at Perkins+Will.
“We had ideas for applications including general model-making to describe a design intent, site topography models, heliodon studies [and] photogrammetry,” he adds.
A fragmented industry
Of course, while interest in automation is peaking, the use of robotics in construction is nothing new. Companies in Japan were particularly drawn to the technology in the 1970s and ’80s, during a construction boom that required more skilled workers than were available. Robots were created for all kinds of tasks, from excavation to material handling to rebar placement.
But despite this early progress, robotics did not take off in the construction field like it did in other industries – car manufacturing being perhaps the most notable example. This is because, unlike the repetitive, mass assembly lines found in car factories, construction tasks and sites proved notoriously difficult to automate.
“Historical uses for robots are repetitive things that are very easy to automate,” says Jacobs. “Construction typically isn’t like that. Every single project is unique; construction assemblies are layered. It is not obvious how you can deploy robots in a context where it has to do something different each time it interacts with your construction project.”
With the construction industry fragmented and siloed into designers, fabricators, contractors and developers, forging partnerships to “figure out how you streamline and automate the design-to-fabricate-tosite- assemble process isn’t easy”, Jacobs adds.
“These partnerships are very rare,” he says. “Usually after one project, the contractor and architect move onto another project where they are not partnered together. It requires a longer-term commitment.”
The Japanese example
But none of these challenges are insurmountable. According to García de Soto, recent advancement in sensors, AI and other digital technologies mean the industry is increasingly able to modify the chaotic, on-site construction environment into a more factory-like, manufacturing setting.
The assistant professor mentions the efforts of Japanese contractors such as Shimizu, Obayashi, Taisei and Takenaka who built robotic on-site factories during the late 1980s and ’90s as an example of how this can be done. While these concepts proved costly at the time, “we are seeing it pick up again because the cost of that technology has significantly dropped and now it makes economic sense”, García de Soto says.
To help propel robotics into the mainstream of the construction industry, García de Soto argues there needs to be a greater alignment of interests among the different stakeholders – from those responsible for building codes and regulations to contractors, developers, architects and structural engineers.
“Contractors should be willing to invest in new technology and they should have support from governments to do this,” he says. “Owners also have an interest in using automation in projects because it will ensure higher quality projects that finish within time and budget. Eventually this will cascade down to the different players in the supply chain.” While the construction industry remains risk-averse, the strong economic incentive to introduce automation means a robot revolution will happen “sooner rather than later”, according to García de Soto.
“Contractors who choose not to be part of this movement will have a challenge keeping up with the competition.”