October 22, 2015      

The British arm of the multinational development company Skanska AB has recently been awarded funding for a project to develop the next generation of robots for on-site and off-site construction.

As part of the initiative, Skanska UK PLC will lead the Flexible Robotic Assembly Modules for the Built Environment (FRAMBE) research consortium. The organization includes ABB Robotics, Building Research Establishment Ltd., Exelin Ltd., Tekla UK, and the University of Reading. FRAMBE will review potential robotic systems for tasks such as cutting and drilling on construction sites.

The team will develop virtual models of the robots in use, map the relevant business and manufacturing processes, and integrate them with existing building models and enterprise resource planning systems, according to Sam Stacey, head of innovation at Skanska UK.

The expertise of lean management consultancy Exelin’s is needed to find efficiencies and opportunities for automation in the complex variables of building construction.

The two and a half year project will also “pilot a shortlist of applications, such as 3D concrete printing, reinforcement-cage fabrication, and pod assembly,” he said. “A robot to drill and fix to the underside of slabs, for example, would eliminate a lot of work at height in dusty, noisy environments.”

In addition to developing units capable of operating on site, Stacey revealed that the team will work on units that can be deployed in temporary and flexible facilities known as “flying factories.” Skanska describes them as a system of “near-site manufacture” that allows for the construction of structures under strictly controlled conditions.

These facilities could speed up the assembly of buildings on site by mitigating the effects of bad weather and other on-site hazards. In 2013, Skanska won a £750,000 ($1.15 million) government grant for flying factory trials.

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“Flying factories enable the off-site industrialisation of construction projects using temporary and flexible factories with lean principles,” said Stacey.

“This achieves the benefits of off-site fabrication — quality, speed, waste reduction, safety, and efficiency — without the capital expenditure and transport costs of permanent factories,” he added. “The assembly of complex construction components is carried out in short-term rented spaces, which are in close proximity — under 25 miles — to the operational site.”

Sweden-based Skanska is also working with off-site construction employers and the U.K. Commission for Employment and Skills to identify skills gaps and provide training in partnership with educational institutions.

‘Huge market’

The research and development project is funded to the tune of £709,000 ($1.09 million) by Innovate UK, the U.K.’s innovation agency, as well as by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The funds will also go to converting design information into machine instructions using Tekla’s software and ABB’s Robot Studio software. Standard ABB robots will also be adapted for project activities — specifically, mobile deployment.

“We expect to see gains in speed, accuracy, safety, sustainability, and cost in relation to the production of buildings and infrastructure,” said Stacey. “This will ultimately happen over many years, but the project will kick-start progress.”

That said, he acknowledged that a number of challenges still remain. For instance, the research team still needs to explore exactly how it will handle mass customisation, plus other aspects such as mobile deployment, large assemblies, software integration, and specialist applications.

Stacey pointed out that partnering “will spread the cost and mobilize expertise” needed to address these challenges, and he stressed the need to learn from other industries.

Ultimately though, Stacey noted that the market for this type of construction robot is potentially “huge.” He identified a number of applications that might be particularly well-suited to the technology that the FRAMBE project will develop.

Construction is a $5 trillion to $10 trillion industry, with very few robots currently and the potential to replace a large proportion of human labor,” he said.