Robots Are Constructing a Dam in Japan. Are Buildings Next?

As Japan’s workforce continues to age, retiring workers will increasingly be replaced by machines.

Nathan Bahadursingh Nathan Bahadursingh

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To address Japan’s rapidly aging workforce and labor shortage, contractor Obayashi Corporation has turned to automation by constructing a dam almost entirely with robots, as reported by Nikkei Asian Review.

The trial project is located in Mie Prefecture, on the southeast coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Obayashi developed automated equipment to stack concrete layers to build the 275-foot-tall and 1,096-foot-wide dam. A concrete plant has also been built near the site to further streamline the construction process.

dam

The cranes at this site are computer controlled; Photo courtesy of Obayashi

Every step of the building process involves some form of automation, which includes the initial work of establishing the foundation. Tower cranes responsible for laying down concrete in 160 square foot sections that comprise the dam’s body are controlled remotely by office computers, which also monitor the positioning of the partitions and the progress of construction. Humans will only take over the cranes in the case of an emergency.

In the case of uneven concrete layers, which are usually brushed down by human workers, robotically-controlled rollers developed by Obayashi will periodically flatten and polish the concrete before another layer is deposited. Furthermore, another robot developed by Obayashi will continually lift the formwork in order to keep unset concrete from leaking out. 

While the amount of automated solutions is impressive, Obayashi says that they have only increased productivity by about 10%, because they still require people on-site to oversee this relatively new technology. However, once the company acquires more expertise Obayashi expects that productivity could increase by up to 30 percent. This type of project is especially conducive to automation, since dam construction involves long repetitive tasks in sites far from population centers, which lessens the risk of disturbing people.

The construction site in Japan where Obayashi is building a dam almost exclusively with automated equipment; photo courtesy of Obayashi

With Japan’s rapidly aging construction workforce, companies are acting swiftly to build robots based on workers’ expertise before they retire. In addition to this, Japan is implementing stricter regulations on overtime, which will take effect on construction sites starting in 2024. This will further cut down on human resources, reinforcing the need to incorporate automation technology in other types of construction as well.

Given Japan’s urgent need to address its increasing labor shortage, the country must act fast, and industrial sector forms an ideal testing ground for robot construction. Assuming the method proves successful, it will also be interesting to see if the approach is utilized on a wider range of construction projects, including residential and commercial typologies.

The dam is slated for completion in March 2023.

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