How a US-based start-up is constructing buildings in India the Lego way

Topics Startup | Construction

Using state-of-the-art technology, the company is making building blocks which can be fitted into each other like Lego pieces
Apart from the public health emergency of the Coronavirus spread, China also made headlines last week for building a makeshift hospital in a record 10-days to accommodate 1,000 patients infected with the virus.

Hundreds of miles away, in a small town of Tamil Nadu, a US-based start-up called Katerra is also executing building projects with great speed. It is building houses, offices and malls almost three times faster than the time usually taken. Using state-of-the-art technology, the company is making building blocks which can be fitted into each other like Lego pieces, facilitating construction which is dust free and at least 50 per cent faster than the traditional method.

Nestled in the picturesque rocks of Krishnagiri, some two hours from Bengaluru, the company’s 43-acre plant looks like a huge park at first sight. However, when you pick up one of the bicycles parked at the gate and reach the batching facility, you realise the complexity of this automated factory. You find green shuttles carrying concrete mix to the pre-cast factory, from where a line of concrete walls can be seen to come up one after another.

“We are a full-stack company, right from design to delivery, which is converting the construction site into an installation site as we do not build anything on site,” says Najeeb Khan, who heads Katerra’s India business. The company entered India in June 2018 after acquiring an offsite manufacturing company, KEF Infra.

The SoftBank-backed startup begins the manufacturing process with a design for manufacturing and assembly technology. The entire project is sliced into different parts, to be manufactured in the plant and later installed at the site.

For its 1.6 million square feet Infosys project at Electronic City, the building’s design was split into 48,000 pieces on the design software before the actual manufacturing began. Katerra is looking at completing the project in 16 months, whereas it would have taken at least 25 months to build it via the traditional method, claims Khan.

Once design optimisation is done, the assembly line production of each element begins. There are four facilities — pre-cast, joinery, aluminium blazing and pods factory — which work in sync to complete the project.

First, the concrete mix is prepared at the batching plant and taken by automated shuttles to the pre-cast bay. A mesh welding machine cuts the long iron rods and prepares the skeleton for the slabs according to the required length and breadth of the design. The welded mesh is then bound to a metal bed by a shuttering robot. The bed has magnets which keep the mesh in place. The shuttles take the concrete mix to the concrete spreading machines which have attached sensors. So if the mesh is for a wall with windows, the machine makes sure that it does not to pour concrete in that region.

The bed then starts vibrating to settle the concrete mixture and smoothen the surface. The slab is taken to the steam curating chamber where it is kept for eight hours to achieve the strength of the concrete. Every eight hours, a new batch of slabs for walls, ceilings and flooring comes out of the curating chamber. Each slab is tagged with a barcode, which is scanned by the production team once transported to the project site, to keep track of the shipment. 

Located next to the casting factory is the joinery room which does all the woodwork such as doors, windows and furniture. The cutting line of the factory has all machineries connected to a central dust collector, hence the work is sawdust free. The cut wood pieces are fed into a CNC (computer numerical controlled) machine to produce woodwork in the desired style.

Next comes the aluminium and glazing set-up, which fabricates panels for the doors and windows as per the project’s requirements. Here too, CNC machines do the cutting and polishing of the panels. The entire pre-cast manufacturing and onsite installing activities are supervised by Katerra Apollo, the company’s in-house software.

"Use of precast construction is offering added advantages by significantly reducing construction time as well as providing sustainable and better quality. With components being manufactured in a controlled environments, they offer human and environmental benefits such as site safety, waste reduction, improved air quality and quality management," said Gurjot Bhatia, Managing Director, Project Management, CBRE South Asia.

Katerra’s pods factory will soon have automated lines for prefabricated bath, kitchen and conference kits. These prefabricated kits are currently in the R&D stage and will be slowly rolled out from this year.

Katerra is also looking at launching a product in the affordable housing segment. Called K-10, the one and two bhk apartments will be manufactured as blocks at the flagship plant and can then be fixed on top of each other, going up to 10 storeys. These buildings can be set up in a span of 20 days to 2 months, depending on the requirement of the client, says Katerra.

The company has two more factories coming up — one in Hyderabad and another one between Pune and Mumbai — to cater to its growing client list in southern and western India, including Embassy, Bosch, and the Vaishnavi Group. For projects in north India, the company has been installing portable factories.

A temporary factory in Lucknow is building the 2 million square feet Lulu mall, which is likely to be completed in two years. Katerra also plans to set up a plant in Delhi-NCR by 2021.

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