Comment: Site to factory04 January 2019

Volvo and Skanska’s project to electrify and automate operations in a Swedish quarry is profiled this month. It’s not the first such project for Volvo, which has tested self-driving mine trucks in Norway and South Africa, at least. This project makes two big changes: swapping diesel engines with a battery-electric powertrain, and removing some drivers through automation. Benefits quoted include pollution and cost reductions.

Perhaps this switch is more significant than that. In simple terms, mines – like big civil engineering projects – mostly consist of workers in mainly diesel-powered machines. But take away most of the people, and change the way the machines are powered, and what’s left resembles a factory more than a worksite. Modern factories are characterised by the semi-autonomy of production; these days, workers’ main responsibilities are to tend to machines rather than operate them. Production routines have been optimised for efficiency, and only require staff to perform repair and maintenance tasks.

Such machines – whether boilers, motors, compressors, overhead cranes, conveyors – are powered by centralised electricity. With the power comes power; in exchange for AC, they supply a wealth of performance parameter information. Data analysis can further improve the process.

This factory model works so well that it is being adopted in some types of construction. Sections of complex structures, such as nuclear power plants or oil processing piperacks, are being made in modules off-site, within controlled factory environments, to achieve greater quality, at lower cost, than could be accomplished on site. Installation is limited to the set-up, rigging and operation of large-scale lifting and movement plant that fit them together. The topic was debated in the House of Lords last month:

So for civil works dominated by mobile plant, carbon emissions are the least of it. Automation and electrification might just completely transform the way they work.

Will Dalrymple

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