Keeping Up with the Machines

Webuild and its partners are setting up a robot factory to support a railway project in Sicily

Once all of the tunnel-boring machines (TBMs) are up and running, it will be hard for their human handlers to keep up with them.

There will be five of them in all, grinding away under the Peloritani mountain range between the cities of Messina and Catania on the east coast of Sicily.

Each TBM will be assigned a section along the planned route of a new double-track railway, and be responsible for the excavation of the two tunnels that are to run in parallel through their section of the route.

Commissioned by Rete Ferroviaria Italiana, a division of state railway operator Ferrovie dello Stato, the project belongs to a sustainable mobility programme to improve the Italian island’s railway infrastructure and prepare it to join the Scandinavia-Mediterranean Corridor of the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) designed to improve the transport of people and goods across the region.

Up to the challenge

Since these five TBMs will be operating on their respective sections contemporaneously, the need to supply them with precast concrete segments quickly to allow them to line the walls of the tunnels they excavate will be great.

And it is a need that would be hard to meet if the factory that is to make the segments were to be run solely by humans.

Robots, on the other hand, should not have any problem taking up the challenge, reasons Webuild, the Italian civil engineering group responsible for the construction of the railway. To prove it, the group, along with its collaborators at robotics developer CP Technology and Politecnico di Milano university, is setting up what will be one of the most innovative factories of its kind in the industry.

No time to lose

Robots will be stationed along the production line, producing the segments better, faster and safer than if humans were to do it on their own.

Filippo Giunta, who is overseeing the railway’s construction, swears by the ability of the robots to supply the segments to the TBMs at an elevated and consistent rate.

“If we had to rely on a normal factory, we wouldn’t be able to do it (the project) on time,” he says. “It would take forever.”

Better and safer

Located in the town of Belpasso near Catania, the factory is scheduled to come into operation early next year.

It is expected to be 43 percent more productive, churning out one segment every seven minutes rather than the usual 10.

With robots mixing and pouring the concrete into moulds, then curing and inspecting them before expediting them to the tunnels where the TBMs are busy at work, the factory will require nearly half the usual number of people to oversee production: seven rather than the usual 10.

Since the robots will be working on the most arduous tasks, handling segments each weighing seven tonnes, safety will noticeably improve.

The entire process will be digital, with the use of artificial intelligence to make it easier to control the quality of production. Each segment will also have a bar code and a chip, so its history from factory floor to tunnel wall will be easily traced.

Better and greener

The factory’s innovative features will extend beyond the production line.

It will reuse the water it uses and collect rainwater so it can meet 70 percent of its needs.

Solar panels on its roof will provide 40 percent of its electricity.

“We saw the need to lend an innovative advantage,” explains Klaus Pini, chief executive at CP Technology. “We proposed our idea of a technological plant that is digital, integrated, green and safer in which robots replace people in doing the heaviest tasks.”

The factory is the first of four being planned by Webuild for projects in Italy.

From single to double

Of the 42.2 kilometres of double-track railway to be built between Messina and Catania, 37 of them will pass through 11 tunnels.

The work will be divided in two sections: one between Fiumefreddo near Catania and Taormina, and the other between Taormina and Giampilieri just outside Messina.

The railway will replace an old, single-track line that winds its way along the coast. The trains that have been running along it for decades are so slow that most people prefer to take the car or bus to get to either city.

At speeds of up to 160 kilometres per hour, the trains that will eventually run along the new railway will be about 30 minutes faster in arriving at their destination.