Trip Report: Japanese Progress in Robotics for Construction
James S. Albus
This trip was part of a study mission sponsored by the Technology Transfer Institute, and co-sponsored by the Construction Robotics Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University. The study mission visited six of the largest construction firms in Japan, a University, and a Robotics Research Association. Perhaps the most important finding is that all the major Japanese construction companies have large research budgets and impressive in-house research staff. Of the companies we visited, all had research laboratories staffed with more than 200 people, and budgets in excess of $10 Million. These companies aggressively compete with each other in many areas of advanced technology, including construction robotics, and are actively transferring results from the research laboratory to the construction site. Although there is as yet no significant direct government funding of construction industry research in Japan, many of the government contracting procedures for large construction projects seem to be designed to encourage research into innovative techniques. Also it seems that building codes and regulations set by the government can be changed rather easily to accommodate newly developed building techniques. Thus, any Japanese company which implements a new technique to improve productivity or quality can reasonably expect to reap a large profit. It is also important to not that the Japanese practice of saving and investing between two and four times as much as Americans has created a growth economy in which construction is 20% of the GNP. Construction is about 8% of GNP in America. Thus, the Japanese construction industry is very healthy, aggressive, and searching for new technologies to exploit both at home and abroad. The Japanese emphasis on new construction technology contrasts sharply with the situation in American where construction firms typically spend absolutely nothing on research. Furthermore, American construction companies rarely use any machine that is not a well established product, and are reluctant to introduce new techniques onto the construction site unless forced by competitors. Also building regulations and union grievances work to discourage attempts to change construction procedures. My distinct impression was that the Japanese construction industry will provide significant competition to American firms within the next decade. The large Japanese companies have about 10% of their operations overseas. While they may not choose to directly compete for construction contracts in the American domestic market, they will surely be formidable competitors for American firms with overseas operations. It also seems possible that within the next decade Japanese construction machinery may begin to dominate world markets much the same as Japanese automobiles and machine tools do today.