Automation on the Construction Site

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics in the workplace get a lot of attention in industry discussions. Many articles report on the number of jobs that will be replaced by new technology on the horizon, or focus on the wonders new technology can bring. They range from alarmist, feeding off the anxiety workers might have about losing their jobs to machines, to pollyanna scenarios, thinking that every new innovation will be radically beneficial to both the industry and humanity.

This article sits somewhere in the middle, from exploring the areas where autonomous technology has already had an effect, to discussing what new technology might bring to construction, not in the distant future, but soon.

Automation as a Solution to the Labor Shortage

The construction industry is experiencing a skilled labor shortage and has been for a while. The problem is expected to worsen year after year as more and more workers retire. New workers simply aren’t going into the trades in sufficient numbers to replace aging workers.

The US is not the first country to experience this problem. Japan has had a demographic crisis going back decades now, and has felt the sting of it in their own construction industry. Japanese companies are designing robots that can work in the complex and varied conditions of a worksite. A limit for autonomous technology on a construction site is that they need to move through a variety of spaces and do a variety of tasks.

In Japan, there are already robots doing work in some areas, moving things around, and performing other repetitive tasks. They are are generally, however, relegated to night time and weekend hours. The technology is not quite there to consider them safe to use when human workers are around.

Using Drones

The growing use of drones is another example of how existing technology is being used at this moment to help fill the labor gap. Drones can do aerial mapping, photography, surveying, and GIS. It can get to places that are extremely difficult for people to get to, or in some cases impossible. This kind of work done manually would take much longer and require more people. With drones, much of the danger and time associated with this kind of work is cut down significantly.

While drones are considered robots, they still require a human operator. This reality helps make the case that drones are actually creating jobs because trained pilots are required to operate them — you wouldn’t want an amateur flying your $10,000 (or more) piece of delicate equipment. And according to some, drones allow construction companies to do different kinds of tasks they couldn’t do before. This adds value to businesses by allowing them to engage in more activities, thereby creating more diverse jobs.

Tearing down tech barriers to build walls

This past year, an Australian company has unveiled an automated bricklayer that claims to be able to lay brick for an entire house in a few days. It’s called the Hadrian X and is already set to be applied in various markets, namely those in Australia and the UK. British news reports reflect anxiety that the bricklaying machine will mean layoffs of human bricklayers. According to traditional thought, these kinds of machines can never fully replace human capacity for fine detail in bricklaying work.

Automatons of the future

One engineer is making waves with his plan to make other kinds of heavy machinery, like bulldozers and excavators, into self-operated members of a construction team. The idea is to make them into something like self-driving cars, but with the ability to do construction work. As the son of a construction worker, he became a Google engineer who now hopes to make contributions to the construction industry by removing the tedium, and the wear and tear on the body. Whether this engineer’s plan comes to fruition, what is clear is that the genie is out of the bottle on self-operating machinery.

Is the future already here?

Many will say that a lot of this technology still has a long way to go before making a real dent in the construction industry. At this point, the machinery is only slightly smarter than their predecessors, and still isn’t to the status of AI. The cost of developing such technology is exorbitantly expensive, so it may be the case that other kinds of technology need to advance before what is available now can have a real effect. Advancing AI would create the versatility to get into all the varied spaces that humans cannot.