Rise of the machines

Is one man’s plan to industrialise construction science fact or fiction?

Michael Fahy
Michael Fahy

This week’s cover story with KEF Holdings, Faizal Kottikollon is an interesting one in many ways. In total, his firm is spending around $350m to create factories that will apply the same kind of robotic production techniques used in the automobile industry to construction.

He plans a series of integrated industrial parks containing manufacturing units capable of producing precast units, bathroom pods, MEP modules, joinery and stonework in factory conditions that can then be largely assembled on sites to build even the most complex structures.

Kottikollon is an industrial engineer, and he tells CW that he is applying the same kind of process controls to an industry that he feels is wasteful and has too many ‘middle men’.

It is a view that may be quite simplistic – and his system has its limitations.

It would not be capable of producing (for now, at least) the type of signature buildings with complex structures from star name architects for which the region has become famous. It also only works within a 300km radius of each plant (although units can be shipped further) and pretty much relies on infrastructure-ready sites.

The units produced in factories also need to be designed and fit perfectly, as any errors that might occur during the assembly process would prove to be much more difficult (and costly) to rectify than through traditional construction. Yet his vision of ‘industrialising’ the industry is one which shouldn’t be disregarded out of hand.

Kottikollon has proven to be more than capable in his previous field of oil & gas, selling his Emirates Technocasting model based on a similar integrated model for foundries for an eventual $400m.

And, as the region’s cities continue to grow rapidly, there will be a demand for cheap, functional space – be this for offices (see Snapshot, p12), massive affordable housing schemes, schools or hospitals.

Some within the industry might find Kottikollon’s vision for construction’s future at best soulless and at worst impossible. But if he can manage to deliver on his claims, he’ll find lots of interested parties as it addresses two key concerns – speed and labour issues.

As one contractor who spoke to me recently about the impact of oil prices said, it is difficult to forecast revenues beyond two years in the Gulf as clients want everything built in the shortest possible time. An ‘industrial’, machinery-driven method can cut 50% off typical building timeframes, Kottikollon argues.

Secondly, workers’ conditions is an issue which is becoming increasingly thorny for the region’s big-spending public bodies (witness TDIC’s angry riposte to the Human Rights Watch report on conditions at Saadiyat Island last week, and the ongoing debate surrounding labour in Qatar) but it is one that is unlikely to go away. A system that offers to dramatically cut headcount, save costs and improve quality while offering a better environmnent for its workers, should not be dismissed too readily.

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