If French industry is in the middle of an automation revolution, against an economic backdrop conducive to relocation, what about construction? Robotization is playing a more significant role in the French construction sector. This trend reflects a desire for innovation, improved productivity and safer production. On building sites, robots are appearing for certain specific tasks, such as drilling, surface treatment like bush-hammering, and the application of insulating treatment or paint.
Although still in its first stage, this robotic development is synonymous with greater safety, less drudgery and greater efficiency on worksites. As such, it holds great promise for the future of construction in France.
Robotization also opens the way to optimized construction techniques. However, this transition brings with it challenges, mainly human: reconfiguring the workforce, changing skills and overhauling working methods.
In your opinion, what is the current state of robotics in the construction industry in France?
Robotization of French industry is underway, although lagging behind other European countries. This is measured by the number of robots per country. Robot manufacturers are increasingly present in France, enabling us to gradually catch up.
Within the Bouygues Group, robotics made its debut on construction sites in 2010. Have you heard of the Télémach robots? They change the knurls on the cutting heads of tunnel boring machines, which weigh 300 kg, plus another 100 kg for tooling. A series of patented innovations led to the development of this robot, based on a KUKA KR500 that moves on a rail.
Or the ROBY 850? A robot that automates drilling in tunnel work. It was in operational use on a site in Hong Kong and Australia.
It uses a theodolite to position itself and carry out drilling and dowel-laying operations in tunnel segments up to 8.5 meters high, with an accuracy of 1 mm compared with the theoretical position on the plan.
These robots increase precision, efficiency and safety on worksites, by automating repetitive and dangerous tasks, and enabling construction in difficult conditions. Will they be deployed further?
Today, we have reached a level of technological maturity that allows us to have robots on our worksites. But there are still challenges to be faced in terms of acceptability and know-how. Usually, the toolbox of operators on construction sites does not include robots. But if we manage to introduce them, we’re going to radically transform the profiles of our operational teams, starting with journeymen and supervisors.
Robotics has the potential to radically transform the building and civil engineering sector, introducing new approaches to construction and revolutionizing the appearance of worksites.
What are your thoughts on this?
It’s a natural evolution: when we talk about robotization, we also talk about design. If we are to integrate more robots, we will have to rethink our construction methods and consider them at the design stage. If, for example, with drilling robots, we are able to make holes up to 800 mm deep, but we are limited to 600 mm because of the reach of the robot, questions arise. Could we increase the density of the holes with a robot and thus reduce their depth? With robotization comes a change in our design methods.
As automation and advanced technologies continue to permeate various sectors, it’s interesting to wonder how they will reshape the recruitment landscape in the construction industry.
Construction will open up to more technical profiles. This should also increase the attractiveness of this sector, which is currently experiencing a real lack of interest. In addition, by improving working conditions, our trades will be made less arduous and more attractive for production teams. Robotics is one of the ways in which we can meet the challenges of recruitment.
We’re looking for different profiles capable of mastering these new tools and becoming efficient operators with real expertise in robotics.
There are a number of obstacles to the development of robotics: the high cost of these technologies, the complexity of tasks on construction sites requiring human intervention, and the lack of technical skills to operate these technologies. What other obstacles do you see?
The difficulty of finding the funding to develop these robots in a sector like ours, which is highly competitive and lacking in productivity, is a real brake. Nevertheless, there is a real desire to make progress. Thanks to our technical maturity, we are able to move forward, despite the obstacles. Our management is open to experimenting with new solutions. There is always a learning phase, even in the event of failure, which proves instructive.
What’s more, the fact that our public works sector involves creating unique structures makes it very different from the automotive or aeronautical industries. Each site is a prototype that can take several years to build. This can be a real brake, because robotization needs to be adapted to each site. Our design methods therefore need to evolve and take robotics into account as far upstream as possible, so that adaptation is minimal and robotics can deliver all its benefits.