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Student venture aims to bring automation to home builders

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5 May 2020

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

Nikau Robotics is utilising cutting edge automation technology to increase productivity for small and medium construction businesses. The team are developing a smart 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 machining for fast, accurate cuts of wood without the need for external suppliers.

The concept for Nikau Robotics is the brainchild of Mechatronics Engineering student Harrison Lawton. “It occurred to me while helping a contractor renovate my family home. After watching the working process for several weeks, it occurred to me 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 of a process ripe for automation. After scouring the internet for a machine to meet this requirement it became apparent there was no product that was able to effectively satisfy this market’s requirements, 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 that would enable him to give his idea life. “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 that 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% increase in productivity yet an 5% increase in production in 2019 alone. This is all while 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% 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 construction firms.”

Since Summer Lab, Nikau Robotics has developed a fresh team with extensive technical knowledge in engineering and commerce as well as a large experienced mentor board. Harrison says “We have initiated meetings with several venture capital firms including UniServices and received wonderful feedback on both everything we are doing right and 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.”

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

Harrison says “The key to our success is going to be building a large international community of companies aware of our innovation. We are very excited to begin our ambitious market outreach around the world in the coming months. 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.”

James Hutchinson

Nikau Robotics team and CIE staff at Summer Lab end of programme celebrations

James Hutchinson

Nikau Robotics team and CIE staff at Summer Lab end of programme celebrations

social media

5 May 2020

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

Nikau Robotics is utilising cutting edge automation technology to increase productivity for small and medium construction businesses. The team are developing a smart 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 machining for fast, accurate cuts of wood without the need for external suppliers.

The concept for Nikau Robotics is the brainchild of Mechatronics Engineering student Harrison Lawton. “It occurred to me while helping a contractor renovate my family home. After watching the working process for several weeks, it occurred to me 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 of a process ripe for automation. After scouring the internet for a machine to meet this requirement it became apparent there was no product that was able to effectively satisfy this market’s requirements, 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 that would enable him to give his idea life. “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 that 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% increase in productivity yet an 5% increase in production in 2019 alone. This is all while 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% 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 construction firms.”

Since Summer Lab, Nikau Robotics has developed a fresh team with extensive technical knowledge in engineering and commerce as well as a large experienced mentor board. Harrison says “We have initiated meetings with several venture capital firms including UniServices and received wonderful feedback on both everything we are doing right and 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.”

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

Harrison says “The key to our success is going to be building a large international community of companies aware of our innovation. We are very excited to begin our ambitious market outreach around the world in the coming months. 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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