CONSTRUCTION TECHNOLOGIES IN JAPAN

June 1991

Richard L. Tucker, Construction Industry Institute (Panel Chair)

John W. Fisher, Lehigh University

Daniel W. Halpin, Purdue University

Boyd C. Paulson, Jr., Stanford University

George H. Watson, Amoco Corporation

Richard N. Wright, National Institute of Standards and Technology

Reed W. Nielsen, Bechtel Corporation

SUMMARY

To evaluate the innovation and effectiveness of R&D in Japanese construction technologies, the JTEC panelists focused on processes, materials, and systems. They examined R&D; materials; field operations; and automated equipment, building systems, and structural systems. They also examined management systems, safety, environmental technologies, and public/private interactions.

The Japanese Ministry of Construction (MOC) assists industry; its efforts are complemented by MITI, the Building Research Institute (BRI) and the Public Works Research Institute (PWRI). MITI's construction focus is on housing-related matters. The role of the MOC is to establish criteria for qualifying contractors to bid public works projects, promote R&D through the BRI and PWRI, and maintain the national building code. The U.S. has no such common code; many codes exist throughout the nation.

In Japan, a private contract is usually negotiated and a government contract awarded to the low bidder from a technologically prequalified group. Design-build contracting is common in private work, but design-then-build dominates public-sector projects. Japanese construction companies are led by engineers and architects who are familiar with the specific technology used on their projects. Like their U.S. counterparts, they are concerned about productivity and safety. To attack these problems, the large Japanese contractors conduct substantial R&D.

Research and Development

Of Japan's annual construction volume, 0.51 percent is spent on construction R&D, compared with under 0.1 percent in the U.S. for comparable sectors. As a matter of national policy, the Japanese see continued and increased R&D investments as important to upgrading housing, renewing and expanding the public infrastructure, and keeping their industrial capital base efficient and up to date. Industry, government, and universities generally work independently, yet there is cooperation in setting goals and working on certain priority areas.

Japanese construction companies have well-established in-house R&D programs, generously funded mainly from their own internal sources; the programs have well-equipped laboratories on a level almost totally absent in U.S. construction companies. Partly through application of their research findings, Japanese construction companies have moved ahead of their U.S. counterparts in many areas, including soft-ground tunneling, design and construction of intelligent buildings, deep foundation construction, construction robotics, and long-span bridge construction. They are likely to expand their lead rapidly in the future.

Government laboratories in both countries have good and approximately equal capabilities for construction R&D. The U.S. appears to have an advantage only in universities. In construction, Japanese universities seem isolated from industry and government R&D; they have few if any counterparts to NSF-funded engineering research centers and industry-supported centers at leading universities in the U.S.

Materials

Japan's government, manufacturing industry, and engineering-construction industry laboratories have given extensive, sustained, collaborative attention to the improvement of construction materials. R&D elsewhere in the world is monitored carefully and useful results licensed in Japan. Government research activities are more extensive than those in U.S. government laboratories. The Japanese manufacturing industry has increased R&D, but U.S. building materials manufacturers have been abandoning product development research to cut expenditures. Japanese engineering-construction firms have large-scale construction materials research efforts that are generally unmatched by U.S. counterpart companies. University professors and researchers collaborate in these efforts, but on a smaller scale than their U.S. counterparts.

Thus Japan matches or leads the U.S. in implementation of state-of-the-art construction materials technology and has growing leadership in research. Strong research and implementation activities have given the Japanese steel industry clear leadership in weldable and fire-resistant, high-strength structural steels. A major cooperative government, industry, and university program for high-performance concrete research is likely to give Japan leadership in this internationally significant area of construction technology.

Automated Equipment

Japanese companies have also invested heavily in developing automated equipment, although they have produced very few practical pieces. Much of their motivation to automate seems to stem from their desire to improve the image of the construction industry among workers, make construction safer, and help sell both existing customers and new prospects. Despite their push to automate construction equipment Japanese companies do not use computers for schedule or cost control as widely as U.S. companies do, relying instead on manual methods. However, Japanese companies are actively exploring ways to transfer information from computer-assisted design models to field equipment, and then manipulate that data from the surrounding environment using artificial intelligence.

Infrastructure

Improving Japan's infrastructure has depended on efficient development and use of space. The Japanese have sought new space by building up, building out, and building down. They attack the construction of office and apartment buildings from a new perspective: the building is a system and needs systems solutions. The concept of the intelligent building is key to this strategy. One of the MOC's key objectives for the 1990s is to achieve "good-quality housing and infrastructure that suit the needs of the nation." The boom in office building and home construction markets offers an excellent opportunity to apply high-technology concepts to building construction to improve the working and living environment.

The quality of buildings and support systems in Japan equal that of new buildings constructed in the U.S. Most of the systems are adaptations of existing technology, which may lead to a fusion of technology. Emphasis on automation, robotics, and new structural and construction systems to support super-high-rise buildings could lead to new breakthrough technologies in building systems by 2000. A wide range of structural systems are being systematically developed that focus on factory automation and use of robots and intelligent tools. Extensive use is being made of CAD/CAM systems for design, manufacture, and construction of structural systems. Although the U.S. is ahead in R&D efforts in these areas, implementation is at least equal, or even ahead, in Japan.

Structural Systems

Development and availability of thermomechanical process control (TMPC) steels in Japan place the Japanese well ahead of the U.S. in applying these special steels to structural systems. The Japanese experience indicates that these materials make steel structural systems more competitive for building and bridge applications. Concrete structural systems in Japan seem on a par with those in the U.S. for precast structural elements. In high-strength concrete for structures and high-rise construction, Japan appears to be lagging behind the U.S. The panel found that R&D efforts and trial implementation of active control damping systems for earthquake and wind resistance far exceed U.S. efforts. Passive control damping systems, such as base-isolated structures and special dampers, are being actively studied, and trial implementations are under way.

Conclusions

The Japanese have one of the most advanced construction industries in the world. Japan has long acknowledged the U.S. contribution to its technological and managerial practices. The Japanese have blended these practices into their culture, resulting in a robust construction industry that contributes significantly to the welfare of Japanese society. The U.S. construction industry could use some of the lessons learned by Japanese companies.


Published: March 1994; WTEC Hyper-Librarian