Thursday 22 May 2014

Robots at construction sites

This robot could be laying your floor tiles soon
By Janice Heng, The Straits Times, 21 May 2014

APARTMENT floors may soon be tiled not by humans, but by intelligent robots - fast, precise and in no danger of straining their backs.

A prototype has been developed by the Future Cities Laboratory here in collaboration with Swiss firm ROB Technologies AG.

If the project is successful, Singapore could become the first country in the world to use them.

With more than 40 million tiles laid in new construction projects here each year, there is "great potential" to automate tiling to make it more labour-efficient, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in a blog post yesterday.

The robot uses sensors that show it where to lay the next tile. Using suction pads at the end of a mechanical arm, it lifts a tile from the holder on its back and lowers it into place.

It does this twice as fast as a human - and because one worker can supervise two robots, firms can be four times as productive.

Two workers usually take two days to tile a three-room Housing Board flat. It is hoped that with four robots, two workers could tile four flats in that time.

Human-robot teamwork is the idea, said the project's team leader, Professor Fabio Gramazio: "We do not believe in a simple substitution of humans."

The robot's supply of tiles has to be refilled by a human every 40 minutes.

While it lays the tiles, workers can "focus on higher-value-added work such as refilling and grouting the tiles, and cutting odd-size tiles to fit the corners", said Mr Khaw.

The construction industry is facing a shortage of tilers.

They make up half of Craftsmen Design and Construction's 10-man team, but owner Steve Goh needs more.

However, Singaporeans do not want to do the job and curbs on foreign labour restrict the pool - all his tilers are Malaysians.

"I would be prepared to consider this robot, especially with the labour crunch," he said.

By reducing manual labour in tiling by up to 75 per cent, robots would also cut the risk of worksite accidents, said Mr Khaw.

The prototype is the result of 10 months' work.

The team has designed an attachment to let the robot spread mortar on its own, but it still needs to be equipped with the mortar supply. The team will also give it wheels so it can move across the room as it lays the tiles.

The project team will work with industry partners to improve the robot and take it to market - hopefully within a year.

Mr Khaw said that "robotics is not new, but we hardly see it in our construction sites". If building firms are keen to get robots, the Building and Construction Authority "will be happy to provide some funding support to help change the status quo".


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