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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

Transforming infrastructure through smarter information

The widespread use of flat panel formwork for concrete leads to materially inefficient prismatic shapes for the beams, columns, and floor-slabs in our buildings. This practice, which has been around since Roman times, is both architecturally constraining and a key driver behind the high embodied carbon emissions associated with concrete structures. As a liquid, concrete can form structures of any shape, given the correct mould, and can be produced off-site in a highly automated, quality-controlled environment. By using robotics to create an optimised shape, buildings could become more aesthetic and resource efficient and the construction industry more productive.

A robotic arm has been placed on to the strong floor at the National Facility for Infrastructure Sensing (NRFIS), in the new Civil Engineering Building (see page 22), as part of the Automating Concrete Construction (ACORN) project, a collaboration between researchers at CSIC and the Universities of Bath and Dundee, and multiple partners from across the construction and built environment industry. The ACORN team will create an end-to- end digital process to automate the off-site fabrication of non- prismatic building elements, capitalising on the recent proliferation of affordable robotics and bring them into an industry ripe for a step-change in sustainability and productivity.

Linking robotic manufacture to design

ACORN’s focus on automated manufacturing and digital processes to reduce both fabrication and build time are key ways of realising better value. By moving the manufacture of structural concrete elements into a highly controlled factory environment, the project will ensure that buildings can become more sustainable and the construction industry more productive.

Using a robotic arm, programmed to apply concrete only where necessary, the team intend to demonstrate that material efficiency will enhance sustainability and productivity. Taking this approach at the design phase of any construction project brings potential for enormous savings. The project is at the early stage and embedded sensors monitoring performance both in the lab and on-site will feature as the prototype project develops.

The team are considering the long-term benefits of this process as well. Once the structure is in place, sensors will be returning information to inform the next stages, monitoring the structural health and performance of the building throughout the lifetime of these structures.

This manufacturing process, including formwork, reinforcement placement and sensor integration, would see added benefits; workers would increase their skills, safety would be improved, and manufacturing costs reduced.

Resource efficiency

Construction accounts for nearly half of the UK’s carbon emissions, and cement manufacture alone for five per cent of global CO2 emissions. By moving the construction of concrete buildings off- site, to a highly automated, quality-controlled environment, and using robotics to create optimised non-prismatic formwork, our buildings can become resource efficient and the construction industry less polluting and more productive. Designing and building lightweight vaulted slabs with minimised reinforcement, instead of highly-reinforced thick plates – thanks to breaking the constraint of easy-to-fabricate forms – changes how we will construct our buildings of the future. A prototype building on the BRE (Building Research Establishment) Innovation Park at Watford will act as a demonstrator of the research and developments at the end of the project in late 2021.

Contact: Research Associate Dr Robin Oval
CSIC team: Dr Robin Oval, Dr John Orr
Industry team: Neil Abbott, Director of Construction, BRE, Francis Aish, Head of Applied Research Foster + Partners