How Close is Robotic Labor?

Advocates for mechanized help on the job site say the shift has already begun with ‘smart’ excavation equipment.

Could robots be the answer to construction’s labor problem? The industry certainly seems to think so, with non-human workers being successfully tested to tackle tasks such as excavation, drywall installation, painting, and roofing, and headed for more efforts in the future. 

Construction productivity has fallen by half since the 1960s in the United States, and this is largely prompted by the industry’s prolonged shortage of workers. This makes robots an obvious solution. If you can’t hire them, why not build them?

Adoption of Robots On the Way

Smart construction has been a long time coming. The sector has continued to grapple with inefficiencies and labor shortages for decades, largely due to a failure to evolve with the times. According to “Reinventing Construction Through a Productivity Revolution,” a digitization index by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), construction remains one of the least-digitized industries on the planet, lagging well behind its contemporaries in technology uptake. Construction comes in second-to-last and last place, respectively, on MGI’s U.S. and European lists.

Given these facts, the development of robotic and automated construction tools has been a matter of “not if, but when.” And, thanks to a number of up-and-coming startups in this space, it does not look like there will be too much more waiting. 

Robot bulldozers and backhoes which use sensors such as Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and GPS to “see” the world around them have been tested successfully, along with industrial robots that have the ability to install drywall without human assistance. Such products will be a catalyst to construction’s future growth. The sector is in desperate need of a shakeup. 

Smarter design, smarter employment practices, and using new and innovative construction technologies have the potential to remove the labor pressures from a sector, which has struggled consistently for efficiencies. This, of course, requires flexibility from construction firms—something which could be more difficult than robotic design in such an entrenched industry. 

Impacts of Robots 

Although robotics may seem inevitable, many technical hurdles remain. However, it is a development for the coming decades. Autonomous solutions do not answer today’s lingering issues of inefficiency and loss of qualified labor.

AIST Robot 2-web

Japanese public research body, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) is developing a robot capable of activities such as drywall application and wall panel installation. Credit: AIST

As noted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the ongoing labor shortage, including that of professional talent for designers, architects, and higher levels of management, has “undermined project management and execution, adversely affecting cost, timelines, and quality.” Time is money—and the lack of available, skilled workers and professionals is one of the biggest reasons for stagnating productivity and rising construction costs. Some reports, WEF notes, estimate cost increases of 30 percent year-on-year.

The sector needs to start small and start now. This means rethinking construction employment in tandem with better construction practices—a combination that is also being empowered by technology. Less human capital can be answered by evolutionary thinking and the construction hiring platform. 

According to “Engineering and the Gig Economy,” a report by Engineering.com, the majority of all workers will be freelance within the next 10 years. Flexible employment terms and freelance conditions could help to ensure there are enough employees to go around.

Moreover, innovative and streamlined processes will be able to deliver important efficiencies for right now that robots cannot. Modular construction is a good example. This allows for the design of prefabricated buildings or homes that consist of repeated sections. This enables construction of sections away from the building site, then delivery to the intended site. Instead of relying upon robots, modular construction streamlines the process itself to save on construction time, resources, and human labor. 

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Built Robotics has combined off-the-shelf heavy equipment with AI guidance systems to remotely power equipment used to build critical infrastructure such as wind farms, gas pipelines, and new housing developments. Credit: Built Robotics

Gradual Increases In Robot Workforce 

While successful pilot tests are being made, it will still be years until robots enter mainstream use. It is no easy feat to build and teach computers to take over human tasks, especially when they take place in an environment such as the construction site. Startups in this space are still fine-tuning how to integrate robots into an already-complicated building site and empower the robot to maneuver an area that evolves as portions are completed. 

Further, it is not just robots that are poised to change the building practices of tomorrow. Companies that have developed software solutions aimed at streamlining processes and increasing efficiencies are now common. 

Prefab construction has evolved, thanks to innovation in that space, and 3D printing technology can create small homes in a matter of days. Investors have backed such projects and other construction tech startups to the tune of $3.1 billion in 2018. 

Robots on the construction site promise to slash labor expenses and work faster for longer hours. But it makes sense for construction firms today to refine what they can, rather than waiting for robots tomorrow. 

The robots are coming. But if they’re to solve labor problems, the construction industry needs to make systemic changes now. 

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