Published On 21 September 2023
Imagine visiting a hi-tech museum and being guided by an AI robot. No, you are not experiencing a remake of the “2001. Space Odyssey” movie but just walking into the new RAIM, the Robot & Artificial Intelligence Museum that will be open to the public in Seoul, next year. It will be a huge hub providing various industry 4.0 tech experiences and educational programmes, enabling visitors to experience cutting-edge technologies such as robotics, holography, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
The Turkish agency Melike Altinisik Architects won an international competition to build this huge 7,400m2 hub. The company decided to develop a smart design and smart building technologies.
“A team of robots will assemble the museum’s curved metal facade, while saving time and money. Led by a building information modelling (BIM) system, they will mould, assemble, weld and polish the metal plates. Another team of robots will 3D-print concrete for the surrounding landscape,” the designers said when the project was unveiled.
However, the ambitions of the Turkish agency have come down to earth. Its press office admitted: “Robotic construction methodology has not been fully implemented into the construction process of RAIM because of the many regulatory obstacles and economic issues in Seoul. It will be featured as part of the museum’s exhibition rather than being the main construction methodology’’. And so, the opening of this futuristic museum, initially scheduled for 2022, has been now delayed to the second half of 2024.
Once more, this case has shown how the idea of automation has been sensitive in the construction industry, while others such as the automotive industry embraced the robot revolution years ago.
The productivity of global construction has barely increased at all in the past decades, according to the study “Reinventing construction: a route to higher productivity” from the McKinsey Global Institute, which suggests that productivity could be boosted by 60-70 per cent with actions taken in seven areas: “reshaping regulation; rewiring the contractual framework to reshape industry dynamics; rethinking design and engineering processes; improving procurement and supply-chain management; improving on-site execution; infusing digital technology, new materials, and advanced automation; and reskilling the workforce”.
The European Builders Confederation (EBC) fully shares this analysis but underlines the constraints that are slowing the digitalisation of SMEs, which account for more than 90 per cent of Europe’s construction ecosystem, a sector that employs approximately 25 million people, and that generates €1 158 billion in value added to the EU’s economy.
“Technology is very fast-paced,” says Fernando Sigchos Jiménez, Secretary General at the EBC, “But SMEs in the construction sector are very slow in adapting to the digital innovation as this requires high investment capacity, training time for the employees, and a certain cultural shift in a sector that remains very traditional in some countries”.
“Currently,” adds Sigchos Jiménez, “a high level of robotisation is much easier to implement in bigger construction companies that have a bigger capacity for the initial investment and for the maintenance of the robots. The robotisation of the construction sector is going faster in the Nordic European countries, because it can become more financially interesting given the high level of workers’ wages and the shortage of labour.”
There is strong interest among European policymakers to support the digitalisation of the construction sector. In the majority of EU Member States – 16 out of 27 – policies are in place covering or specifically targeting the digitalisation of the construction sector, according to the 2021 report of the European Construction Sector Observatory.
Several EU-funded projects are now addressing how to mainstream digital innovation in the sector to boost productivity.
For example, in León, Spain, the project Beeyonders is testing drones and remote-controlled robots to excavate tunnels. “These technologies can immediately enter the tunnels after the use of explosives to remove blast debris. This will reduce unproductive downtime, explains Antonio Alonso Cepeda, the engineer who coordinates the project, because normally workers have to wait until the tunnel atmosphere is free of dust”.
“More generally”, adds Mr Cepeda, “the idea of the project is to develop an integrated breakthrough technology used in other sectors and to apply it to the construction industry, to improve productivity and reduce CO2 emissions by at least 11 per cent. The main challenge is to test new non-commercial technologies in a production environment”.
The project is testing how to optimise the structural design of marine caisson and reef to protect the port of Gijón, Spain. “Thanks to a 3D printer it’s possible to explore new curvilinear geometries, not necessarily square, reducing the amount of mortar and the waste generated and so reducing the CO2 emissions and the impact on the marine environment,” underlines Antonio.
Moreover, the use of digital twin technology and artificial intelligence functionality are being tested in another case study for the construction of the A24 motorway near Florence, Italy. “Drones can transmit information on the state of terrain, and thanks to the digital twin and the AI algorithms, the manager on site can plan more carefully the tasks of the earthwork machinery, reducing working time and CO2 emission” concludes Antonio.
As the construction sector has a key role in the implementation of the EU Green Deal, the EU executive has presented its “transition pathway” for the construction sector to offer a bottom-up understanding of the scale, cost, and conditions for resilience, competitiveness, and the green and digital transition. The challenge for the years to come is to invest in the training of the workforce to improve implementation so that innovation can bring direct added value to the SMEs of the construction sector.
By Margherita Sforza