Sisk turns to robots in bid to increase productivity on Wembley project

Contractor Sisk is set to become the latest contractor to embrace robotics and is planning to trial block laying at Wembley Park where it is building 743 new homes to rent for developer Quintain.

The £211m contract will deliver Canada Gardens, which comprises 743 new build-to-rent homes across seven buildings and will be Sisk’s ninth project at Wembley Park.

Stephen Bowcott, CEO of John Sisk & Son, said the move to bring robot technology to sites for block, brick and manual handling is intended to improve productivity. He is reported as saying that the firm has already increased productivity by 15% by investing £4m in digital systems.

Sisk is said to be close to moving forward with plans to buy in small-scale bricklaying robots after searching worldwide for the right technology.

The contractor is also now tagging assets for BIM as it plans to expand its build offer to include five-year maintenance services.

“This will involve fitting sensors to buildings to make them cognitive so we can closely monitor when they are feeling sick or breaking down,” Bowcott said.

The embracing of robots has been picking up pace of late. Neil Thompson, director of digital construction at engineering consultancy SNC-Lavalin Atkins, said: “It’s amazing the sheer spectrum of applications today, where before robots were reserved for large industrial processes like tunnel-boring machines and autonomous plant in mines.

“Manufacturers are focused on creating easy-to-use interfaces so that robots are easy to program, which makes it easy for innovators to build a credible business case to implement robotics in our sector.”

There is also the potential to link robots with digital models, so they do not need pre-programming by humans.

“Our current focus is connecting our CAD systems to robotics, so the robot can understand and have the autonomy to execute tasks itself,” said Felipe Manzatucci, innovation director at Skanska. “The right data capture from the CAD systems will be an enabler of AI. That link is an important step in making digitalisation an enabler of industrialisation.”

“Robo-tech” has hit the headlines over the past few years. The bricklaying robot Hadrian X showed last November that it could build the shell of a house in just three days. Its creator, Australian firm Fastbrick Robotics (FBR) recently formed a 50/50 joint venture with building materials supplier Brickworks to start building homes in Australia.

TyBot is the creation of US-based Advanced Construction Robotics, which automates tying of steel reinforcement bars. The system uses a robotic arm rigged to a gantry crane to locate rebar junctions then tie them together before a concrete pour. Its inventor says TyBot can match the speed of a team of about six to eight site workers with only one worker required to supervise.

Kier is one of three international contractors that have trialled a robot designed to trundle around sites at night to automatically capture daily progress. The four-wheeled machine, developed by Scaled Robotics, manoeuvres around obstacles and records detailed 3D survey scans and panoramic photos. Online software compares the as-built information against BIM to identify any discrepancies, helping contractors keep tabs on quality and progress.

Robotics and advanced automation remain nascent technologies that face technical challenges and barriers to market. For example, large-scale 3D printers remain far from compliant with EU building codes and are prohibitively expensive. Sites are also unpredictable environments and robots are not yet intelligent enough to work seamlessly alongside human counterparts.

The use of cobots – machines that work alongside humans – could become the most likely scenario, said Thompson: “Just as the industry progressed from using screwdrivers to power drills, in the future it will progress from power drills to the use of cobots. Skilled trades will not be lost, they will instead gain the skill of programming cobots to help them with the bulk of their tasks.”

Understanding how robotics will affect site processes is one aim of a partnership between Balfour Beatty and Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow, where it is building a campus. It will provide space for students to work with academics and experts on a range of robotics projects, and is part of Balfour’s vision of reducing onsite activity by 25% by 2025.

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