UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During the summer of 1991, a young John Messner packed his bags and took his first airline flight across the Pacific to accept an information technology researcher position with Fujita Americas (formerly Fujita Research) and Fujita Corporation. Based in Tokyo, Messner — a doctoral candidate studying architectural engineering at the time — was tasked with developing computational approaches to improve the design, manufacturing and construction of precast concrete structures in Japan. His work would ultimately contribute to research within Fujita Corporation to leverage artificial intelligence for construction.
Today, Messner is a professor of architectural engineering and the director of Penn State’s Computer Integrated Construction Research Program. Now, he is the driving force behind the development of a construction robotics lab — an expansion of current facilities operated by the Penn State Department of Architectural Engineering.
More than 25 Years of Automation Research
“We have truly come full-circle with this,” said Messner, who recalled his initial involvement with Fujita. “In the early '90s, Fujita had a focus, and still has a focus, on developing more autonomous approaches to construction. It was a novel idea at the time, when multiple large Japanese contractors were building structures with very few people on site by leveraging automated construction approaches.”
Some companies would build the roof structure at ground level, incorporating cranes within the structure, according to Messner.
“They would then leverage the cranes to build the remaining structure in a controlled environment as they jacked the roof to the ultimate height of the building,” he said. “This has recently been referenced as ‘factories in the sky.’”
These projects proved to be inefficient in the early 1990s from a cost perspective, according to Messner.
A Renewed Partnership
“Today, technology has advanced significantly, so construction automation and robotics are much more cost-effective in the construction industry than they were 20 or 30 years ago,” said Messner. “But we still have a whole other list of challenges to address, which is why a construction robotics lab is so important to our research.”
Fujita and Messner have once again joined forces to make construction robotics a mainstream reality. In late 2018, Messner was contacted by Kenichi Kawamura, adviser of Fujita Corporation and former president of Fujita Research, who reconnected Fujita with Penn State. Fujita Corporation proposed a $50,000 donation to help fund additional research in the field of construction robotics. The new collaboration, which is reminiscent of Messner’s own research program in 1991, also includes the support and expertise of Shinichiro Ota, a Fujita Americas research scientist. Ota will work with Messner and his team for the next year.
A Need for More Research
Working with a University-wide team of faculty representing an array of disciplines including architectural engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, aerospace engineering, psychology and education, Messner said the lab will be instrumental to study the safety and efficiency of robotics and automation in construction.
“There are many challenges to creating an automated construction site,” he said. “It’s an uncontrolled environment with living people and constantly changing parts that make it very difficult to accurately control robots, especially from a safety standpoint. Construction is one of the few remaining industries to more broadly adopt robotics. The constantly changing environment makes it much more difficult than, for example, in a closed factory or assembly line setting.”
Currently, the construction robotics lab is still in its early stages. Additional funding opportunities are needed to accompany the Fujita funds, which Sez Atamturktur, Harry and Arlene Schell professor and head of the Department of Architectural Engineering, has pledged to match.
Once fully funded, Messner said the lab could be up and running prior to the start of the fall 2019 semester.
“The widespread use of robots on construction sites stands to improve quality of life by providing better, less expensive housing and achieving dramatic gains in construction safety,” said Atamturktur. “Dr. Messner has been one of the leading names in digital design, modeling and control, using informatics tools — widely known as building information models — since the inception of the concept. He is well-positioned to lead this effort and I gladly stand behind him in support.”