Webuild’s robot factory will produce a concrete segment every seven minutes to help build a major railway line, compared with the usual 10 minutes it would take a human.
Italy’s Webuild is setting up the first robot factory of its kind in the construction industry to supply precast concrete segments for the tunnels to be excavated along a major railway project in Sicily.
It will be the first of many to be established in Italy and abroad – possibly in Australia.
The project in Sicily will join a gridwork of land and water routes being established under The Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), an initiative to improve the transport of goods and people across the region safely and sustainably. Located just outside Catania, the factory will start operating later this year and, will have more robots than people making the segments for the five tunnel-boring machines (TBMs) that will excavate two parallel tunnels under the Peloritani mountain range between Messina and Catania on the east coast of the Italian island. The TBMs will be doing 11 tunnels for 37 of the 42.2 kilometres of the planned railway.
The segments interlock with each other to form the rings that line the walls of the tunnels under excavation. They are pushed into place by the TBM as the excavation progresses.
Once completed, the railway will join the Scandinavian-Mediterranean Corridor of the TEN-T, which is to run from Finland to Sweden to the island of Malta.
A robot factory for a more sustainable future
Minimising the harmful environmental impact that might be caused by the construction of the tunnels is a priority for the project. It is a challenge set by the client, Rete Ferroviaria Italiana (RFI), a unit of state railway operator Gruppo Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane, which has strict requirements for water and power consumption. So Webuild worked with robotics developer CP Technology and Politecnico di Milano university in Italy to come up with a factory whose innovative features would do just the trick.
“Thanks to the extensive use of robots and automation, the new automated factory makes it possible to satisfy all of these requirements,” says Remo Grandori, Webuild Director of Plant & Equipment Department.
The factory will have solar panels on its roof and a system to recycle captured rainwater, among other features.
“With solar panels on the roof, the factory will be energy self-sufficient for 50% of its needs,” says Grandori.
“The factory also captures and recycles rainwater used in its processes to meet 70% of its needs.”
The boiler that produces steam will also be twice as efficient as the industry average.
This drives down the amount of carbon dioxide emissions to be produced by the factory, meaning the environmental impact of the creation of these precast concrete segments will be reduced.
“There are no precast segments factories in the world that make such extensive use of robotics and automation and, at the same time, self-produce energy and recycle water,” says Grandori.
Webuild’s commitment to sustainability is also evident in its plans to set up three other robot factories in Italy, which will support the construction of high-speed railways along the Brenner Base Tunnel between Austria and Italy, as well as between Naples and Bari, and Turin and Lyon in France.
Robots make light work
The five TBMs that will excavate the tunnels for the railway in Sicily will require a fast and steady supply of precast concrete segments.
The robots will produce one segment every seven minutes compared with the usual 10 minutes it usually takes a human. This equates to a 43% increase in productivity.
Having robots mix and pour the concrete into segment moulds, cook them and then send them to the TBMs will reduce the number of humans needed on site from 10 to seven.
“It will also be safer since the robots will be the ones doing the hard work,” says Grandori.
Making inroads in Australia
Investing in innovation is a driving force behind Webuild’s projects, including those in Australia.
Webuild recently received the “As Built Leading” rating – the highest classification – from the Infrastructure Sustainability Council (ISC) for the Airport Line that it delivered last October in Perth.
The rating rewarded the solutions that the Group put into practice to make the project, formerly known as the Forrestfield-Airport Link, as sustainable as possible.
Water used by the TBMs was recycled at a slurry treatment plant, saving 2,740 megalitres of water, the equivalent of more than 1,000 Olympic swimming pools.
A sustainable concrete blend was formulated to produce the segments that line the tunnel walls. It contained 65% supplementary cementitious materials, thereby reducing by an estimated 21,848 tonnes of CO2 emissions the production of 54,000 segments for the tunnel walls.
Grandori says Webuild would keep bringing innovation to the projects it develops, initially focusing on setting up three other robot factories in Italy.
“Our approach using robots will become standard in the world since there is a global demand to reduce the use of water and energy resources in industrial processes,” he says, opening the possibility of these factories one day arriving in Australia.
Find out more about Webuild’s projects in Australia.