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Digging Robots

Japan Tackles Construction Worker Shortage

Finesse and bulk sound like an odd pairing.

But imagine a 50-tonne bulldozer creating a one- or two-degree grade over the length of several soccer fields. That’s what construction-equipment giant Komatsu has made feasible via a new system that combines drones, automation and satellite navigation with earthmoving machinery.

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Japan’s construction companies now face such an acute labour shortage that they are looking for help from the least expected of places – whether that’s artificial intelligence, cloud computing or even overseas venture capital. Their hand is being forced by the rapid retirement of skilled construction personnel and a dearth of younger people to replace them as well as low productivity and sharply rising wages.

The number of construction personnel has dropped by one-quarter in the past 15 years to around 5m, and sector pay has jumped by one-third since the massive 2011 Tohoku earthquake, according to the Japanese government. While new orders have eased in the nation’s Y51trn ($440bn) construction market, projects already in the pipeline, especially for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the Tohoku rebuilding effort, are keeping the likes of steel workers, electricians and heavy-equipment operators in high demand.

To shrink that labour gap, Japan has rolled out various plans over the past decade.

In September, the government targeted increasing construction productivity by over 20 per cent by 2025 from this year. National strategies, including April’s “i-Construction” plan, called for improved use of information technology, AI and robotics. It also asked for measures to increase efficiency, such as the standardisation of concrete components to allow greater factory production, away from inclement weather.

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Komatsu, the world’s second biggest earthmoving-equipment maker by revenue, has already made significant moves in deploying robotics and technology in construction. The company recently announced that it would use artificial intelligence in its advisory service, designed to help building supervisors and contractors work more efficiently. Last year, Komatsu initiated Smart Construction, a system that uses drones to conduct three-dimensional site surveys, combines that information with blueprints and then downloads that into the equipment via satellite communication. In combination with the intelligent earthmovers, the system guides operators - even those with little experience - in their digging, filling and grading to increase efficiency and reduce the amount of expensive skilled labour required. And in 2013, the company introduced intelligent and connected bulldozers and excavators with automated blades and buckets in 2013.

Even improving something seemingly as mundane as terrain surveying can have a major impact. Komatsu says that conventional surveying and planting of wooden stakes, which plots out the earthmoving work, can take up to two weeks, while drones can reduce that to a day – or even 30 minutes.

Takayuki Nakano, president of Nakano Construction, a mid-size contractor in southern Japan, says: “We’ve pretty much eliminated (hand) surveying and staking. And we can reduce the time required for a job, for example, to two months from three because we don’t need to stop and check the stakes during the work.”

In one instance of preparing a site for a solar-power project, he added a 1-2 per cent grade to ensure proper drainage, something that would have been extremely difficult and time consuming using conventional earthmoving methods.

Japan’s buttoned-down construction sector is even tapping Silicon Valley for help.

In what the industry says is a first, Shimizu, a major Japanese contractor, said in November that it would invest upwards of $9m in a new venture capital fund to help find robotics, AI and automation technologies to help it deal with the worker shortfall. Established by Draper Nexus Ventures, which has offices in San Mateo, California and Tokyo, the $175m fund also includes capital from Komatsu, Canon and Panasonic.

“We’re betting on the speediness and knowledge of VC to help us to get the new technologies,” says a Shimizu spokesman, noting that the contractor even thought of setting up its own fund before becoming a limited partner in one. “While we’re pursuing some partial automation, such as welding of pillars and moving materials, we realised that if we don’t pick up the pace that we won’t be able to deal with the labour shortages.”

Deepak Jagannathan, a senior associate at Draper Nexus, says that in addition to automation helping to alleviate the lack of workers that AI will allow robots to do multiple tasks without having to go through the type of costly reprogramming process that is deployed with current software.