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A vision of the future: robots and drones that create and maintain our public buildings

In the summer I wrote about modular construction, and how this can enable us to build more quickly and to higher standards. However, one of the drawbacks of this kind of off-site pre-fabrication is that it is often only practical in projects where each module is identical. It tends to be used in hotels, apartment blocks, student accommodation and hospitals.

But what if we could take pre-fabrication to a new level, using digital technology for on-site fabrication of non-modular elements of a building?

With Digital Construction Week on at Excel on 17th and 18th October 2018, it seems like a good time to write about this topic.

Off-site pre-fabrication is a practical response to certain building challenges, but it doesn’t provide a great deal of flexibility. For example, it is unlikely to be appropriate in the construction of inspiring public buildings or grand facades.

However, the technology used in pre-fabrication is being transplanted to the building site. Andrew Watts, the CEO of engineering technology firm Newtecnic has predicted that having robots and drones on site will become commonplace.

Speaking to The Engineer, he told them his firm encourages site managers to designate work spaces for on-site fabrication to take place. This often happens in shipping containers that house high-end CNC machine tools (CNC stands for computer numerical control).

The advantage of on-site fabrication is that things can be changed and adjusted if needed. When you put things together in sequence, the exact specifications of later elements may need to change based on what has already been built.

This is a relatively new approach, but it’s possible it will become an important part of major projects. It’s already being applied to civil projects in the US, and Newtecnic are using it in the Metro Hub project in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi project will see robots used in construction as well as post-construction. Robots will carry away and replace damaged components, and drones will be used to inspect and clean the building. The drones’ HD cameras will allow them to feedback data and enable 3D printing of replacement parts. This technology is not yet in operation, but buildings are being designed with this future in mind.

Software and technology is going to shape the future of our industry and our buildings. The construction world can have an image of being slow to move forward, so watching these cutting edge developments is fascinating. Using all of the tools available has the potential to cut carbon emissions, as well as costs, making us more efficient and creating less waste.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this topic so please feel free to strike up a conversation if it interests you.

And if you need input on the structural elements of your next project, please get in touch.

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