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Robots, drones help Japan’s builders out of labour crunch

TOKYO — Construction sites in Japan are enjoying a wave of automation amid an increasing shortage of labourers, with the introduction of robots to do the heavy lifting and drones that fly from above and instantly collect data.

Robots, drones help Japan’s builders out of labour crunch

The use of automation has increased productivity at Japan’s construction sites by up to ten-fold, leaving human workers with a lighter load. Photo: Reuters

TOKYO — Construction sites in Japan are enjoying a wave of automation amid an increasing shortage of labourers, with the introduction of robots to do the heavy lifting and drones that fly from above and instantly collect data.

As the population in the industry ages along with the country’s greying society, construction companies are facing the need to boost productivity and efficiency.

According to the Japan Federation of Construction Contractors, there will be 1.28 million fewer construction workers by fiscal 2025 compared with fiscal 2014.

In 2015, some 30 per cent of all construction workers were above the age of 55, while those below 29 accounted for only about 10 per cent, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

“We will probably have a total of 900,000 workers joining the industry within the next 10 years, but the shortfall of 300,000 will need to be covered by boosting productivity,” said Mr Atsushi Fujino of the public relations department of major construction firm Kajima Corporation.

“That’s why we are all scrambling for a solution.”

Kajima has started using unmanned automated dump trucks, bulldozers and vibrating rollers with global positioning system technology at its building sites, where a worker using a tablet operates the tasks carried out by the pre-programmed heavy machines.

For example, only one person using a tablet is required to operate a sequence of tasks carried out by five machines that dump soil, and compact and smooth surfaces.

Shimizu Corporation, another major construction firm, has developed an arm-shaped robot that lifts reinforcing rods.

It usually takes six to seven people to carry one bar that weighs about 200kg, but only requires three workers now to direct the robot and move the rod to a desired location.

“This is a realisation of human-robot collaboration,” said Mr Tomoaki Ogi, manager of the civil engineering technology division at Shimizu. Mr Ogi participated in the development of the arm-shaped robot, which is now being leased out at construction sites.

Even with technological advances, construction sites are still far from being fully automated. In fact, Mr Fujino of Kajima said he doubts all tasks at construction sites can be done by machines.

“There are things that only people can do, for example, getting small corners done or interiors — those require artisanal skills,” he said. “Machines and humans excel at different levels.”

Mr Ogi of Shimizu agrees, saying every site is different in terms of size, soil or weather, and each time, a robot must be reprogrammed to fit new conditions.

Besides, construction sites are not like the manufacturing industry, where robots are stationary and the tasks are identical, with products moving along an assembly line.

Mr Ogi suggests making use of the strengths of robots and humans, emphasising that robots cannot understand nuances like their human counterparts. “Let the robot do the heavy work under people’s know-how,” he said.

Still, construction firms are hoping that robots and the automation of building sites will encourage the younger generation to return to the industry.

It appears young people are turned off by the sweaty and difficult working conditions, long hours, and low pay.

Mr Yohei Oya, a 38-year-old construction supervisor at construction firm Shojigumi Incorporated in Shizuoka Prefecture, who is actively using robots and automated machines, said that building sites are changing before people’s very eyes.

“Productivity has been boosted by five to 10 times through automation, and we’re not at the site all night like we used to be. You don’t even have to be highly skilled any more to get the work done nicely,” Mr Oya said.

“The burden on our workers has been reduced, and so has ours (management’s) ... Work is completed in half the time it used to take,” he said. KYODO NEWS

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