Automation in Civil Engineering



In construction is one of the fundamental aspects of Civil Engineering. Due to increasing urban populations, there is growing demand for urban infrastructure. Due to the complex nature and quality infrastructures required, it becomes paramount to use economic and efficient techniques. Therefore, it has facilitated the integration of automation in the development of Civil Engineering projects. Automation serves to solve some of the problems encountered in construction sites such as the shortage of labour, working in extreme conditions, and other issues regarding the quality of the structures being developed. The incorporation of automation into construction activities is essential in improving the rate of work and accuracy during project implementation. Furthermore, it helps to alleviate some of the environmental issues such as noise pollution and emission of greenhouse gases that are generated from construction activities. The paper evaluates the use of automation in construction and presents case studies of automation in Civil Engineering field.


Over the years, the use of automation in civil engineering has proliferated. The adoption of the technology has been facilitated by factors such as improved productivity and quality, reduced workforce, improved working conditions, shortened construction time, and reduced costs. In civil engineering, the scope of automation encompasses all the stages of construction and development from planning and design, construction, operation, and maintenance, to the dismantling and the recycling of the engineering structures. The activities performed by the robots in building and construction include repairing elements, positioning, demolishing, inspecting, concreting, finishing, connecting, tunnelling, and among other construction activities. The integration of automation in Engineering has proved essential in addressing problems associated with the shortage of workforce and productivity of the workforce. Automation applications have provided a platform for solving issues in the construction industry. This paper looks into the implementation of automation in civil engineering (construction) and its impact upon the environmental issues.

Current Situation of Construction in Civil Engineering

In developed and developing economies, the construction sector is the primary contributor to the economic activities in these regions. The industry provides employment opportunities to a more significant part of the population (Dakhli and Lafhaj 2017: 1361). In these economies, the demand for construction activities comes from other sectors such as the residential, industrial, and infrastructure sectors. Construction also contributes a significant percentage to the GDP of these economies. In most of the developing nations, the present urban infrastructure cannot adequately meet the demands of the rising urban population. Therefore, there arises the need to develop smart urban infrastructure and real estate projects that would be able to sustain the needs of the ever-rising urban community (Dakhli and Lafhaj 2017: 1361). These millennial goals would be achieved by integrating automation in the development of urban infrastructures such as urban transport, sewerage, water supply, and estate development.

Current Situation of Automation in Construction

The significance of automation in the construction industry has increased, especially in the developed nations. Most of the developing countries venturing into the field need to invest in automation technologies such as automation of road, earthwork, new machinery, bridge construction, and electronic devices. The technological developments in robotics and computer science have enhanced the development of new technologies in the construction field in the bid to improve productivity and quality (Toole and Gambatese 2006).  Some of the significant areas of automation in the sector include building construction, tunnel, structures, roads and railway construction, and ports. The major types of automation in civil engineering include survey, design, and construction automation. 

Literature Review

Automation in Surveying Processes

Surveying processes are essential construction practices that can be performed using automation technologies. The regular surveying processes include soil deformation monitoring and point layout. The innovative methods of hardware development, such as laser scanning and total robotic stations help to speed up the surveying process by checking the quality and the accuracy of the construction.

Zhao, Chen and Pang (2015: 351) identified that the deformation features of the buildings located in either convex or concave position of the excavations helped to predict and prevent the possible influences in the surrounding buildings in similar cases. Dai and Zhu (2015: 371) utilised the photographs collected from the infrastructure and developed an approach of automating the process of marking the object vertices and the edges. The improved method proved vital in reducing the efforts of converting the data images into 3D geometric models (Ribeiro 1998: 35). The process was a significant step forward in achieving full automation in the process of reconstructing built information.  

The automation instrument used in this case is the tunnel boring machine which is used for cutting-edge construction equipment. Dai and Zhu (2015: 371) found out that the material was safer, efficient, and accurate than the typical conventional tunnelling methods. On the other hand, Mao, Shen and Lu (2015: 385) utilised innovative computing systems and a total robotic station to monitor the TBM machine’s alignment status to avoid the problems arising from the tedious calibration processes and accuracy when using the conventional laser station. 

Automation in Quality Control

Wang et al. (2015: 433) proposed a system to collect on-site information and control the quality of the construction. The BIM (Building Information Modeling) and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) integrated system served to help the quality managers in the quick and accurate identification and management of defects (Luo and Gong 2015: 550). The proposed system was an improvement of the time-consuming inspections which had been previously performed in specific locations. Chi, Wang, Wang, Truijens and Yung (2015: 433) also conducted studies aimed at addressing the environmental situation awareness at the site. They identified that lasers canned built models could be used in quality assurance process. They also found out that other tracking technologies like GPS and RFID could be used to discover uncertainties in the construction sector effectively helping the quality assurance managers to re-evaluate the planning decisions and make changes where necessary as early as possible (Mao, Shen and Lu 2015: 385). In these environments, the communication can be made possible by utilising the cloud services. Cheng, Chen and Luo (2015: 613) conducted a research and proposed a CQSC (Construction Quality Supervision Collaboration) system developed by the SaaS private cloud integration to strengthen the supervision and management of construction to ensure quality.

Automation in Data Exchange and Interface Management

In their study of structural model transformation, Wang, Sun, Wang, Chong and Sun (2015: 417) found out that there were features and representations between the structural and the architectural models. The results led to the development of IFC-based software for testing the exchange of data between the information models. Cheng, Chen, Wei and Luo (2015: 613) used the BIM system for identifying risks and checking codes before the development of in-depth foundation projects. They recognised that the BIM system increased the efficiency and the precession of the coding process in risk identification.

In the current construction processes, there are various interfaces which have created a gap in cooperation and communication. The construction industry also faces issues regarding data exchange. In response to these problems, Ju and Ding (2015: 577) developed WIIM (Web-based Integrated Interface Management) systems to reduce the conflicts and reworks due to the interfaces. Additionally, in consideration of risk identification, Yu, Ding and Li (2015: 603) came up with an automatic approach focused on the recognition of section maps to identify risks. They determined that the strategy worked by recognising legends on the section map of the project effectively helping to improve the evaluation of the risks.

Automation and Innovation Management in Construction

Kim, Lee, Wang and Kim (2015: 523) conducted a study in innovation management in civil engineering. The study found out that there was a relationship between the adoption processes of lean construction and low carbon. They identified that the utilisation of LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) in lean construction helped to reduce the emission of carbon, unlike the other original processes. Apart from its significance in sustainability analysis, the method also proved essential for the consumption of energy in the design of healthy indoor spaces. Kim, Lee, Wang and Kim (2015: 523) conducted a study whereby they utilised MAR (Mobile Augmented Reality) technologies. The technologies, derivatives of computer vision theorems, were used to simulate the awareness of energy consumption in building environments. The research also identified other factors that were essential in the evaluations of energy for the development of healthy smart home services.

Automation in Education, Safety and Risk Analysis

Zhao, Chen, Li and Pang (2015: 351) conducted a study whereby they explored the possibility of integrating process and risk management approaches by using semantic and ontological criteria. The process led to the development of a risk-oriented model to promote the integration. Apart from the identification of risks and safety protections in practice, the study found out that safety education was necessary for supporting a safe working environment. In their research, Lee, Eastman and Lee (2015: 507) used virtual reality technologies to develop virtual environments which allowed cooperative distribution in safety learning, safety cognition, and hazard inspection. The evaluation showed that the education platform increased the learning effectiveness in these settings. Wu, Wang, Skibniewski and Zhong (2015: 600) researched metro tunnelling effects while taking into consideration the surface road operation. The results of the study were then used to propose guidelines for the analysis of effective safety over time. The proposed guidelines provided an essential decision tool in the dynamic environment for safety assurance. 

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Case Studies of Automation in Construction

Hadrian X Bricklaying Robot in Australia

Fastbrick Robotics developed Hadrian X. The bricklayer robot uses a 3D CAD model to lay bricks during construction. The CAD model contains instructions which are fed into the system of the robot which enables it to cut and place bricks in-house buildings taking into consideration the design of the doors, windows, and other electrical features such as wiring and plumbing (Dakhli and Lafhaj 2017: 1361). According to the reports from Fastbrick Robotics, through automation, the robot Hadrian X can be able to perform construction activities with more precision, quality, and at a faster rate. Therefore, it helps to improve productivity and reduce costs associated with the workforce.

BIG CANOPY System in Japan

In the construction industry of Japan, automation has been embraced to promote the integration of the resources and process in civil engineering (Cousineau and Miura 1998). Due to the problems experienced in the industry, researchers in Japan came up with ABC (Automated Building Construction) systems to solve the problems in the civil engineering. An example of such systems is the BIG CANOPY that was developed by the Obayashi Company. In BIG CANOPY system, the truss is first built and lifted up, and then the remaining internal structures built. It has three different segments of the work. The first section consists of a computerised office whereby the designers work using CAD systems to develop the layout of predefined structural elements (Chu, Jung, Lim and Hong 2013: 48). 

The second segment is made up of a factory production whereby designers based in offices transmit information which is required for the manufacture of components. The factory consists of a fully integrated computer transporting and manufacturing processes. The third segment of the system comprises a construction site which has been transformed into an automated assembly. It is combined with a central management centre concerned with the coordination of the design information, construction methods, and the delivery of the materials by the factory (Ngo and Schioler 2006).

Metal Fabrication: Tebulo Industrial Automation

ABB Robots

Tebulo Industrial Automation focuses on design engineering and the creation of turn-key industrial automation solutions. In this process, the delivery program comprises activities like marking and labelling devices for the cold and hot coils (Elattar 2008: 23). Consequently, it includes the marking of machines which are used for the application and removal of the strapping. In the steel industry, robots are put in practice due to their high-reliability degree in adverse conditions. Tebulo uses the ABB robots for marking the hot steel slabs. The ABB robots are equipped with specially designed marking heads with triple functions. The machine first determines the position of the steel lab. It then uses the water system characterised by high pressure to deposit the mill skin and after that remove the flakes. The marking system is preferred in steel construction due to its high flexibility degree. Also, the robot can be programmed easily. Another electronic design of the Tebulo ABB robot is used for removing strapping around steel coils. 

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Implications on Environmental Issues

The study identified that the incorporating changes in automation caused environmental impacts. It was determined that in the construction industry, noise pollution was a significant problem. The noise generated during the construction activities and its influence varied depending on the type of equipment used, the nature of events, and the nature of the environments in which the industries are located (Gannoruwa and Ruwanpura 2007: 2079). Noise can be controlled by selecting noisy equipment or constructing noise barriers. Innovation in automation would help to reduce noise pollution by developing automated instruments that have reduced noise and better-operating efficiencies.

Moreover, construction is associated with dust generation. Some of the activities in development produce a lot of dust, which exposes the health of the workers to hazardous effects. Also, the dust generated pollutes the atmosphere. Some of the construction activities that produce dust include sandblasting, concrete and brick cutting, and grinding which produces a lot of dust. Innovations in automation would lead to the development of automated equipment for cutting bricks and performing other construction activities like sandblasting and grinding thereby reducing the dust generated (Shen, Lu, Yao and Wu 2005: 300). 

The construction activities also produce greenhouse emissions and nuclear gases. The gases deplete the ozone layer and also cause waterborne toxicities. In effect, the depletion of the ozone layer exposes the atmosphere to excessive heat from the sun which causes various climatic changes such as the melting of glaciers thereby raising the sea levels (Abanda, Tah, Cheung and Zhou 2010). These environmental changes pose critical concerns to the ecosystems and its inhabitants. The changes in innovations in automation in the construction industry would serve to create automated machines using ecologically friendly energy power systems such as solar thereby reducing the emission of the greenhouse and nuclear gases into the atmosphere.  

Studies conducted show that the most significant percentage of the environmental impacts resulting from the construction activities comprise of the ecosystem impacts followed by the effects on the natural resources. However, the impact on the natural resources is lower than the implications caused on the ecosystem (Zhong and Li 2015: 449). The slight difference in the effect is attributed to the use of different materials and techniques in construction. Some of the methods used to cause significant destruction of the ecosystems essentially endangering the lives of its inhabitants. The changes in innovations in automation would help to develop equipment, systems, and techniques that could significantly reduce the adverse environmental effects on the ecosystems and the natural resources (Zolfagharian, Nourbakhsh and Gheisari 2012: 1752).

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Automation technologies have become an integral part of civil engineering. Over the years, there have been issues of quality, accuracy, and speed of task completion in construction. The implementation of automation technologies have proved essential in improving productivity and the quality of the work performed. There have been concerns that automation that civil engineering is seeking to eliminate the human workforce entirely. On the contrary, automation serves to supplement human power by providing essential services which are required in fast-track and mega constructions. The new automation technologies are also fundamental in building in that they provide solutions to some of the problems facing the construction industry such as shortage of labour, decreasing quality, and safety. Currently, the adoption of automation in the construction industry is not very common among the civil engineers. Therefore, there arises the need to integrate the automation technologies into the construction activities to improve aspects regarding quality and productivity, accuracy, and the rate of production. Also, the techniques are essential in promoting the protection of the environment from environmental pollutants such as toxic gas emissions.

PDP Anddendum 

From the case studies and the researchers explored, I find it essential to integrate automation into the construction industry. Initially, civil engineering incorporated the use of basic construction techniques that were inefficient and uneconomical. The methods undermined some of the essential aspects of manufacturing such as quality and the rate of performance that are fundamental in determining productivity. Most of the developing economies in the world are experiencing environmental problems which resulting from construction activities. The ecological issues include increased generation of dust into the atmosphere, nuclear gases and greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution, and the destruction of natural resources that are fundamental in ecosystems. Apart from causing environmental pollution and degradation, the emissions from the construction sites also pose health hazards to the people. Therefore, I find it essential that the techniques and other processes eliminating the effects of these elements be developed and implemented. 

One of the most fundamental techniques I found useful in construction is automation. The method involved the use of mechanisation and computerised programs to design and enhance the execution of the construction activities. In this technique, I found out that the designs of the construction structures are developed using computer software and the information loaded into 3D CADs that are fed into the automated systems. The computerised systems which primarily comprise of robots and other integrated systems use the derive instructions from the information loaded in the CADs to perform various construction activities such as bricklaying, cutting bricks and concretes, grinding, sandblasting, and strapping of the steel metals.  

The automated systems are efficient, fast, and accurate effectively producing exceptional construction results whenever employed. The working of these systems is much more connected to the millennium goals. The world is developing at a breakneck pace which is in line with the introduction of new technologies meant to increase productivity. For instance, with the growing techniques, there arises the need for quality, efficiency, and accuracy in the production processes. Automation becomes useful in this case because it integrates all these factors in a particular system that performs the activities within the required specifications as developed by the computer programs. 

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