The robots are taking over ... and building Hong Kong’s future

Humans will still call the shots on construction sites, but the work process is undergoing a revolution

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 8:08pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 11:23am

A poorly-ventilated, low-ceilinged car park store room hardly seems befitting a space for a hi-tech research outfit with the name “Fabrication and Material Technologies Lab”.

Hidden behind a nondescript door on the ground floor of the University of Hong Kong’s Knowles Building, the interior is small, simple but suitably industrial chic – plain white walls and a barren concrete floor.

It is littered with half-finished models, raw building material and bits of wood pieced intricately together with precision-cut joints. A computer sits on a trolley and beside it, the lab’s US$35,000 centrepiece – a towering orange six-axis robotic arm.

Watch: HKU’s robot technology at work

“Right now, it can mill, 3D print and cut,” said Christian Lange, a senior lecturer at HKU’s architecture school who is leading the lab’s robotics research team, as the programmed robot worked a drill bit around a block of wood.

It can even do delicate tasks like draw. With a few clicks of a mouse, a second, smaller robot with a marker pen attached to its hand, inked out a dot-matrix sketch of Lange’s daughter Lika, on a sheet of paper.

Set up last February and fully fitted in October, the centre is the first specialised research lab in Hong Kong – if not the Asia-Pacific region – that is testing the use of robots in architecture. It was an attempt, Lange said, to reconnect architects with their traditional role as builders.

It is currently investigating the possibilities of robotically printed clay bricks as a building material.

“With the lab, we are now seeing what we can do to push the boundaries of architecture. It’s about making precise movements in a three-dimensional space and learning how to use it to create new, meaningful, architectural expressions.”

Architects have been putting robots to the test for years. As early as the 1980s, Taiwanese and Japanese firms began using robots to check the facades of buildings, and German architect Thomas Bock started using bricklaying robots in the 1990s.

At the 2008 Venice Biennale, architects from Gramazio Kohler demonstrated how it was possible to construct structurally oscillating brick walls with robots. Last year, Chinese architectural studio Archi-Union robotically constructed an undulating brick facade at an art centre in Shanghai.

While such techniques are still in their infancy and mostly used by private entities or artisans for experimental purposes, that situation is likely to change soon. From bricklaying robots and flying drones that can stack them at heights, to 3D printed bridges, research institutions from Europe to Japan have been pouring research into the area.

“In 20 years or so, robots will have a meaningful impact on construction sites and on costs and efficiency in Hong Kong and the greater Pearl River Delta region,” Lange said.

It is perhaps apt that such a lab be set up in Hong Kong – one of the most expensive cities in Asia to get anything built. This is largely due to severe and chronic shortages in manpower and strong construction demand for planned infrastructure projects.

A total of HK$300 billion in construction output from the private and public sectors is forecast in the next five to 10 years alone.

Official data shows that about 40 per cent of registered construction workers are over the age of 50, while the worker shortage rate has fluctuated between seven and 18 per cent over the past three years. Robots have already taken over manufacturing, mining, agriculture and swathes of health care and transportation. Industry insiders said the construction sector had been too slow to keep up.

“We are a very old industry, but we’re also a very backward industry in terms of technology adoption,” said Kevin O’Brien, executive director for special projects and innovation at Gammon Construction. “We need to change.”

Feeling the pressure, companies like his have been investing millions in robotics and automated construction R&D.

Gammon’s latest results include a “Zero G” arm, which attaches to a mobile platform and helps workers manoeuvre heavy equipment as if weightless, and an “exoskeleton suit” that workers strap on and use to ease loads. Both have already been deployed on construction sites, including a data centre in Tseung Kwan O and the expansion of Ocean Park.

A trial run with a curtain wall installation robot on the Murray Building hotel redevelopment project in Central found that the number of workers on site could be reduced by 25 per cent.

It’s more about looking right the way down the supply chain in terms of where robotics can be adopted
Kevin O’Brien, Gammon Construction

But rather than looking at the technology merely as means of replacing human labour on construction sites – which he admitted would not go down well with workers or unions – O’Brien said investment in robot R&D was being made according to three parameters: productivity, safety and quality.

“People often get confused and expect to start seeing the big Kuka robots in car factories appearing on construction sites. It’s not about that. It’s more about looking right the way down the supply chain in terms of where robotics can be adopted,” he said.

“We’ve got an ageing workforce and these guys still need to earn a salary. It’s about making the work easier for them and giving us the ability to do more with less.”

There’s also another challenge, as spelled out by Gregor Herda of the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) – providing enough housing in the face of heavy urbanisation while reducing emissions and containing climate change.

Speaking at a recent conference in Hong Kong on sustainable built environments, he said previous energy modelling studies conducted by UN-Habitat had shown that prefabricated components could help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a construction project over a 50-year lifespan. But he urged governments to carefully assess the impact on industry.

“One should also consider the design flexibility of the building and cultural acceptance as well as the implications for the labour market. Obviously in a country with a vast need for labour, using a high-skilled labour technology like prefab may have secondary consequences.”

How DIY became a driving force of China’s robot revolution

Human workers will not be replaced en masse by androids in hard hats anytime soon. But certain on-site repetitive processes and jobs will. Tiling, plastering, welding, shovelling, drilling and building work on curtain walls and air ducts, are all, largely programmable tasks.

“Doors, windows … think about a hotel. Think about how much repetition is going on and how much of that work could be done in a repetitive robotic way,” O’Brien said.

The challenge however would be how and when to deploy large, immobile robots that are used to doing routine tasks in a fixed environment, in the changing environment of a temporary construction site. This is especially true of tasks that require working within tolerances and imprecisions, such as interior work like wall tiling. Such tasks, HKU’s Lange said, would still require the steady hand and trained eye of a human craftsman.

“Robots are made to do just like you tell them, precisely,” Lange said. “How do you work in imprecise environments? That’s where the human being is much smarter.”

Chan Ka-kui, chairman of the Construction Industry Council, the statutory body that represents and regulates the industry, reckoned that the real opportunity for applying robotics in construction was taking more processes off a construction site and moving them onto factory floors.

He called it the “industrialisation of construction” – off-site manufacturing and on-site assembly.

“Processes will soon become even more prefabricated than regular prefabrication. It will be complete prefabrication,” he said.

Prefabricated components and materials are already commonplace in the industry, but Chan envisioned a future in which entire units, say a kitchen, were built at a factory by robots before being deployed directly on a construction site.

“Labour costs will decrease, productivity of workers in factories will increase because they’re not exposed to harsh environmental and weather conditions, and the quality as well as safety will improve” Chan said. “Automation is the inevitable direction for the construction industry.”

He said the launch of the council’s Construction Innovation and Technology Application Centre later this year could provide just the platform for introducing more such technology into the industry.

The plan was endorsed by the government in the latest policy address.

“In the long run, the centre aims at establishing a global research network to promote interdisciplinary research and application on enhancement of productivity,” according to the Development Bureau.

What will we do after robots have taken over? Simple: more work

Architects and builders believe the move towards more automated construction processes would accelerate as Hong Kong makes the long-delayed transition to building information modelling (BIM). This system essentially allows architects, engineers and contractors to work with the same 3D mode-based design files in a virtual environment, rather than having to create repetitive and overlapping 2-D shop drawings on paper and ­create templates at different stages. Major government capital works projects will begin using BIM beginning 2018.

“Through BIM, we can actually take that BIM model in the existing software and send it straight to the production line straight at the factory. That’s what we call hands-off production,” Gammon’s O’Brien said.

While robots can bring enormous benefits in terms of costs and efficiency, there is the obvious concern about how the repetitive nature of automation could stymie creativity in design. Lange said Hong Kong was already one of the cities most affected by what he called “the paradigm of standardisation and mass production”.

I think the first step will be to change the culture of making and the culture of designing
Christian Lange, senior lecturer at HKU’s architecture school

“Repetition is meaningful because it’s cost-effective,” he explained. “But if you only use repetition for building your built environment, then you will have negative impacts. Your built environment gets sterile and dull.”

He pointed to the dozens of cookie-cutter estate designs in Hong Kong and the lack of innovation in the industry, which he blamed on red tape and tight regulations.

“[Companies] want to build more interesting architecture but due to strict building regulations and the [contract] bidding processes, it kind of puts a halt to that. It is so tight that they don’t really have much space to manoeuvre.”

In the future, Lange believed that robots – facilitated by BIM – could also help to overcome such constraints by giving architects more control and say in the construction process.

“Architects in Hong Kong are mostly just specifiers. We need to tap into more of the construction. We need to go back to a time when architects were not just designers but builders.

“I think the first step will be to change the culture of making and the culture of designing. We need to educate young architects with this technology and nurture new ideas and entrepreneurial agendas.”