I had the pleasure of chatting with Chris Aerts, the founder of AplusV solutions. His company wants to start systemic change in the construction industry with parametric and robotized sustainable construction.
Chris has been growing his expertise in alternative ways of construction for quite some time. About six years ago, he joined a startup that specialized in the 3D printing of houses. The company undertook projects in Europe, India, and the Middle East.
While working, Chris also studied architecture and engineering. He completed his master’s degree at Delft University of Technology in June 2020.
During his studies, Chris realized that the Netherlands is facing a massive housing challenge in the coming years. The country’s construction industry produces around 65,000 housing units annually. That falls short of the 1 million units projected to be needed in the next eight years. Chris saw that the industry must change radically to keep up with the growing need. His solution: digitized and robotized industrial-scale manufacturing of houses.
Starting up AplusV solutions
“3D printing is a very nice novel method for producing houses, but I believe that to scale up, we need better solutions,” Chris says.
While exploring industrial manufacturing methods at university, Chris ended up devising a mass timber building system.
After graduating, he wanted to bring his ideas to life and launched AplusV solutions, a construction technology firm. It develops software and mass customization systems and provides consulting services to construction sector companies that want to revamp their production.
AplusV solutions has developed, for example, a configurator for timber wall structures. By adjusting wall parameters, a manufacturer or designer can create endless variations of the same structure.
When the design is complete, the user sends the “recipe” file to a manufacturing plant where robots, using AplusV solutions software, assemble the wall automatically. During the process, the user does not have to do any coding.
“If we want to produce the one million new homes in the Netherlands, we have to embed all our construction knowledge in digital programs which we can reuse many times,” Chris maintains.
Developing with partners
AplusV solutions has already worked with ABB Robotics, developing simulation software for robotized construction. The production software is still in development, but the simulation already demonstrates the potential of the concept.
Developing a mass customized production system is not a solo act. That’s why AplusV solutions works with system integrators, robotic manufacturing partners, IT companies, and TU Delft. So, for example, when Chris goes to a large construction firm that wants to start industrializing their housing production, he brings in a systems integrator and ABB Robotics at the get-go.
Several manufacturing plants in the Netherlands have shown interest in the solution. They don’t necessarily have the expertise to operate industrial robots, but with the AplusV solutions and its partners, they don’t need it.
Industrialization requires rethinking
Chris believes that the industrialization of construction calls for a change in business models. Instead of “engineering to order,” we need to transform to “configure to order” – moving from projects to products. In addition, this makes scaling up production possible, even on an international level.
Industrialization requires the integration of the whole value chain digitally and process-wise. The result should be an uninterrupted digitalized workflow from configuration to production, logistics, and financial management.
Chris believes that in housing, panelized off-site production is more practical than volumetric modular production. It also makes it easier to create a variety of designs. In highly repetitive buildings, such as student housing, the volumetric alternative is feasible, he thinks. Bathroom units are another example of modules that can be produced off-site successfully.
Chris mentions a bathroom manufacturer who has shown interest in using robots for wall assembly and tiling. But as in car manufacturing, the electrical wiring of the units is still manual work.
Toward a circular economy
“The Netherlands wants to be fully circular in 2050. I believe digitalization is essential in the transition to the circular economy,” Chris says, “When you have a digital twin of a building, it becomes – in a way – a material bank.”
The choice of timber as the primary building material is also a response to growing sustainability requirements. There are already several off-site timber manufacturers in the Netherlands, so robotizing their production is not a giant leap.
Chris emphasizes that we don’t have to stick to the old mass production paradigm. Instead, parametrization combined with robotics provides a plethora of design alternatives that can use the same production line setup.
“I believe parametric platforms are the way to go if you want to produce one-off buildings, but on an industrial scale,” he concludes.