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Student Venture Aims To Bring Automation To Home Builders

A group of engineering and science students who met during a free University of Auckland venture development programme run last summer, are preparing to take their building automation ideas to the world.

Nikau Robotics is utilising leading-edge automation technology to increase productivity for small and medium construction businesses. The team is developing a smart computer numerical control (CNC) wood router that can intake a stack of wooden panels and process them automatically to pre-cut, drill, and carve wooden panels. The machine they have designed is highly portable to enable onsite use for fast, accurate cuts of wood without the need for external suppliers.

The concept is the brainchild of Mechatronics Engineering student Harrison Lawton. “It occurred to me while helping a contractor renovate my family home for several weeks, how strenuous and repetitive the work was. Almost the entire woodworking process was highly predictable and required a great deal of measuring and precision. From my background in robotics, I was aware these are the ideal characteristics for automation. After scouring the internet for a machine to meet these requirements, it became apparent there was no product that was able to effectively satisfy the market's demands, so I began to design my own.”

Harrison took his idea with him to the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. While taking part in its Summer Lab programme, he formed a motivated and talented team and a suite of new skills and knowledge. “The programme was beyond amazing and I would recommend it to anyone”.

A core part of the Summer Lab programme is market validation; testing assumptions about your idea and ensuring there is a market of a viable size. The Nikau Robotics team’s ideas were validated by their research.

Harrison says the problem of inefficient construction is a global concern. “In the past 20 years there has only been a 1 percent increase in productivity yet a 5 percent increase in production in 2019 alone. Meanwhile, demand for residential construction soars and skilled labour shortages reduce capacity.

"Small and medium construction companies are unable to take advantage of the enormous and expensive industrial CNC machines used by larger construction companies. However, 70 percent of contractors believe that advancing technologies can increase productivity. Here is where we are able to compete in the otherwise overlooked market segment of small construction firms which make up a large proportion of global builders. In New Zealand alone there are over 21,650 construction companies of which the majority are small residential firms.”

Since Summer Lab, Nikau Robotics has established a dedicated team with extensive technical knowledge in engineering and commerce, as well as a large experienced mentor board.

The team initiated meetings with several venture capital firms including UniServices and received wonderful feedback on everything they’re doing right and the aspects to improve.

“We have made enormous progress in prototype development and engineering design. The main challenge has been a result of Covid-19. Like all businesses we too have suffered from decreased productivity and slow supply chains,” he says.

The Nikau Robotics team is excited about the prototype they are constructing and will soon begin manufacturing furniture as proof of concept. From there they will market test the design with industry partners.

Harrison believes the key to their success is going to be building a large international community of companies who are aware of their innovation, and in the coming months, the team will begin their market outreach.

“Our product is slated for release between November 2021 and January 2022, so our work has only just begun, but the journey is as exciting as the destination.”

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