Robots, automation simplify building sites in Japan

Businessmen walk past heavy machinery at a construction site in Tokyo on Jan 16, 2017. Construction sites in Japan enjoy a wave of automation amid a shortage of labourers. (Reuters photo)

TOKYO - Construction sites in Japan are enjoying a wave of automation amid an increasing shortage of labourers with the introduction of robots to do the heavy lifting and drones that fly from above and instantly collect data.

As the population in the industry ages along with the country's graying society, construction companies are facing the need to boost productivity and efficiency.

According to the Japan Federation of Construction Contractors, there will be 1.28 million fewer construction workers by fiscal 2025 compared with fiscal 2014. In 2015, some 30% of total construction workers were above the age of 55 while those below 29 accounted for only roughly 10%, according the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

"We will probably have a total of 900,000 workers joining the industry within the next 10 years, but the 300,000 shortage will need to be covered by boosting productivity," Atsushi Fujino at the public relations department of major construction firm Kajima Corp said. "That's why we are all scrambling for a solution."

Kajima has started using unmanned automated dump trucks, bulldozers and vibrating rollers with GPS systems at its building sites where a worker using a tablet device operates the tasks carried out by the preprogrammed heavy machines.

Only one person using a tablet, for example, is required to operate a sequence of tasks carried out by five machines that dump soil, and compact and smooth surfaces.

Machines, unlike human beings, can also operate and repeat their tasks without tiring, leading to higher productivity.

Currently, the machines are being used on a trial basis at a construction site at a dam in Oita prefecture.

Shimizu Corp, another major construction firm, has developed an arm-shaped robot that lifts reinforcing rods. It usually takes six to seven people to carry one bar that weighs roughly 200 kilogrammes, but only requires three workers now to direct the robot and move the rod to a desired location.

"This is a realisation of human-robot collaboration," said Tomoaki Ogi, manager at the civil engineering technology division at Shimizu who participated in developing the arm-shaped robot, which is now being leased out at construction sites.

Even with technological advances, construction sites are still far from being fully automated. In fact, Kajima's Fujino said he doubts that all tasks at construction sites can be done by machines.

"There are things that only people can do, for example, getting small corners done or interiors, that require artisan skills," Fujino said. "Machines and humans excel at different levels."

Shimizu's Ogi agrees, saying every site is different in terms of area, soil or weather and each time, a robot must be reprogrammed to fit new conditions. Plus construction sites are not like the manufacturing industry where robots are stationary and the tasks are identical with products moving along an assembly line.

Ogi suggests making use of the strengths of robots and humans, emphasising that robots cannot understand nuances like their human counterparts. "Let the robot do the heavy work under people's know-how," he said.

Still, construction firms are hoping that robots and automation of building sites will encourage the younger generation to return to the industry. It appears young people are turned off by the sweaty and hard-working conditions, long hours, and low pay.

Yohei Oya, a 38-year-old construction supervisor of construction firm Shojigumi Inc in Shizuoka prefecture who is actively using robots and automated machines says that building sites are changing before our very eyes.

"Productivity has boosted by five to 10 times through automation and we're not at the site all night like we used to be. You don't even have to be highly skilled anymore to get the work done nicely," Oya said. "The burden on our workers has been reduced and so has ours (management's)...Work is completed in half the time it used to take," he said.

Oya launched a network in 2015 that connects local construction firms across the country that wish to try new technologies at their sites and share information.

Thirteen companies have joined the network and use the latest technology including drones that instantly offer the whole view of a site and are used as a surveying instrument while loading shovels with machine control systems dig soil at a certain depth after reading installed data.

The Japanese government has also been promoting the automation of construction sites, launching the "i-Construction" campaign.

The ministry said it will financially support public works that are planning to use drones and other technology for streamlining. The amount of support will be calculated based on cost estimates for the construction project.

"When we think about the shortage of workers 10 years from now, this is the last chance for the government to invest and conduct radical reform (in the construction industry)," said Yasushi Nitta, senior deputy director of the ministry's public works project policy plan.

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