technology

Japan Wants Robots to Help Build Its Skyscrapers

Shimizu Corp.’s construction robot. Photographer: Koji Sasahara/AP Photo

It takes about half a million man-days to erect a 30-story office tower, a number that hasn’t changed much over the years, because building sites have remained largely impervious to advances in automation. That’s becoming a problem for construction companies in Japan.

The industry, which bore the brunt of Japan’s prolonged labor shortage, is expecting the situation to get worse with at least a million people set to leave or retire from the profession over the next decade. Shimizu Corp., a Japanese general contractor founded more than 200 years ago, is seeking to soften the blow by introducing robots that can weld beams, haul supplies and install ceiling panels.

Industrial robots are everywhere in manufacturing, with more than 2 million operating on factory floors worldwide. In car assembly, as many as one robot per five workers are on factory floors, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Construction sites present tougher challenges, because of their unpredictable environments and the presence of humans. Automation efforts have been limited to the periphery, such as using drones to keep track of building materials.

“The biggest difference is that factory robots are made with the expectation that they will remain in the same place,” said Masahiro Indo, a general manager at Shimizu’s construction technology division. “We wanted the arms to be mounted on a moving platform and most robot makers said that’s not possible.”

Shimizu’s Robo-Carrier automated forklift is equipped with laser rangefinders to navigate environments, not unlike the technology used in self-driving cars. The machine was able to safely maneuver in a room full of reporters and TV cameras during a demonstration at the company’s research center in east Tokyo on Monday. But the lack of clear regulations would limit autonomous use at real construction sites to nights and weekends, Indo said.

A machine that installs ceiling panels, called Robo-Buddy, can heft 30 kilograms at a time, helping to relieve some of construction’s most back-breaking labor. Shimizu plans to introduce the robots on a building site in Osaka around October.

While the robots will save thousands of hours of human labor for the tasks they perform, that will still be minimal, amounting to about 1 percent of the total for a typical high-rise, Indo said. Machines that can work on floors and walls could come next, but getting that number to even 10 percent is a difficult challenge, because the most laborious parts of construction take place inside the building, he said.

Recent advances in deep learning have improved the ability of machines to detect their environments, paving the way for applications such as navigation in self-driving cars, according to Pham Quang Cuong, assistant professor at the school of mechanical and aerospace engineering of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“There will be more automation in the next few years, but most of it will happen off-site,” he said. “We are still at the very beginning.”

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