Spotlight on Suburbia, a series; part 5.

Tom Wigg

Tom Wigg, Senior Sustainability Consultant

The onsite challenge.

Read part 1, 2, 3 and 4.

In this series, we’re looking at how suburbia might evolve over the next 20 years, considering the myriad of social, economic, political, and environmental factors. Ultimately, we hope it will put suburbia in the spotlight, and highlight new ways to build and deliver housing in this most vital of living environments.

Manufacturing homes offsite promises to revolutionise the construction process, and we looked at how this could shape suburban development in the part 4.

However, this forward-looking innovation need not be constrained to the factory. Developers are finding ways of deploying many emerging technologies in a construction context, resulting in increased safety, speed, and efficiency.

An innovative example.

Looking globally, and putting the current pandemic aside, Japan’s construction sector has, in recent years, suffered even more severely than the UK from the consequences of an ageing population and a skills gap. According the Martin Schulz, an economist at the Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo, the increase demand on the sector could leave labour shortages at “crisis level” in the next few years.

In response, Komatsu (the world’s second largest construction company) has been developing and deploying a new service it dubs Smart Construction – where a team of robotic earth movers conduct a proportion of the groundworks autonomously.

Initially, it wasn’t without its problems. The first phases of the service required highly detailed surveys to be conducted by humans. They took an average of two weeks to complete and inaccuracies in this method and the inability of the automatic equipment to ‘see’ the wider context resulted in 20-30% errors in the soil volumes moved. However Komatsu, in collaboration with US drone manufacturer Skycatch, tackled this problem by developing a fleet of drones that could accurately conduct a 3D survey of the ground in less than a day, sometimes in as little as 30 minutes.

The fleet of drones then provide real-time feedback to the automated equipment, dramatically reducing the error.

In a UK context, such a solution may prove challenging, as legislation around both drones and automated equipment is more stringent. However, should it be legislatively feasible to deploy such a system in the UK, the potential benefits to the strategic land owner are broad. A reduction in the number of employees required helps combat a labour shortage in the UK and potentially increase efficiency and reduce on site time – all positive outcomes, especially in light of the current crisis.

Looking to the construction of the dwellings themselves, there is further propensity for innovation. However, given the myriad of benefits in prefabricating offsite, it seems unlikely that there will be significant drive to develop a solution that can do the same in the unpredictable and often inclement conditions on site without significant advantages over offsite alternatives.

Looking at what’s realistic.

Considering that even offsite manufactured homes require some level of assembly onsite, there is scope for automation of this final process. Though, given the infancy of the offsite and automation sectors, it is probable that investment will stay focussed on the aspects of the construction process that can generate the greatest improvements in efficiency and consequently, the highest financial returns. With prefabricated homes reducing the on-site time substantially, efforts to automate the on-site construction are likely to experience diminishing returns… in response, our focus must be on the areas where we can have the most impact.

Look out for part 6.