Construction has been slow compared to other industries to adopt technology, but it’s starting to catch up as technology gets more sophisticated to accommodate the industry’s unique needs.
Michael C. Brown, a Skanska executive vice president and general manager in Florida, attributes construction’s tech dawdling to the idea that no two construction projects are the same. “When you make a car or airplane, you have a lot of repetition in that work,” he said. “The automation you implement can be a bit more simple because the task is repetitive.” Construction, however, requires uniqueness almost every step of the way, he said. “Technology needs to be more sophisticated because [most] construction tasks aren’t repetitive.”
As that sophistication continually evolves, firms need to be more cognizant of how, exactly, the tools available and under development are going to change the way they do business.
Automation makes human work more important
Is automation taking jobs away from the construction industry? Rather than fear that it is, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost encouraged attendees of Autodesk University 2017 to think about where automation can take the industry. This past November, he followed up on the thought in his keynote address, noting that automation will introduce new ecosystems into the workplace that will give professionals the opportunity for better and more meaningful work by taking away redundant and repetitive tasks. “[Automation] increases the importance of our expertise and creativity,” he said.
And although automation could displace up to 2.7 million construction workers by 2057, according to a report from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute, the study’s co-authors told Construction Dive that “as long as 100% of the task cannot be automated, there will still be a need for human labor.”
Construction Robotics’ semi-automated mason robot, for example, is designed to work alongside a human, as is its Material Unit Lift Enhancer. The company always starts by asking where someone is doing redundant work and could benefit from a machine taking the physical strain out of the work or increasing work speed.
Tech enhances worker safety
Autodesk also shared its predictions about artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning with Construction Dive, indicating that “AI and machine learning will be broadly applied in construction to reduce risk and improve project performance across the project lifecycle. We predict that AI will also be applied to identify change risk and predict and prevent those changes earlier in the project lifecycle. In the year ahead, we will more regularly see AI and machine learning on the jobsite and, as a result, more firms will realize its benefits to the construction workflow, saving companies time, money, and most importantly, increasing workers’ safety.”
Stephen Muck, chairman and CEO of Brayman Construction Corp. and cofounder and president of Advanced Construction Robotics, the firm behind Tybot, the rebar-tying robot, told Construction Dive that robotics could supplement construction in numerous ways, including extending career times by allowing a robot to perform more physically demanding tasks.
Muck also thinks that “another dimension is that, as robots become more common in construction, they function as a draw to bring younger, technically-savvy people into the construction workplace.”
Tech "vital" to easing labor woes
The Associated General Contractors of America, meanwhile, anticipates that technology’s increasing affordability and adaptability paired with the workforce shortage will “prompt a significant transformation in the way projects are built,” said Brian Turmail, vice president, public affairs and strategic initiatives.
Construction, which had enjoyed a fairly large labor pool until the Great Recession, now is grappling with how to build more with fewer people. Fortunately, as labor pools shrink, technology is growing, and Turmail calls the adaptability of technology “vital” to construction. “Since jobsites change on an almost daily basis,” he said, “it allows for the kind of labor-saving augmentation that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.”
As exciting as tech such as exoskeletons and robots are, he believes the most tangible innovations will be changes in building practices thanks to technology that “analyzes data, improves scheduling and figures out ways to improve productivity.”
As workforce shortages and technology’s innovation continue to converge, Turmail said that “firms will need to be prepared to understand how to harness the right technologies at the right time, in the right ways, to remain competitive.”
Brown agrees that regardless of whether the economy continues to boom or if it eases a bit, the labor shortage will remain. As such, the increasing automation of jobsites and use of robotics will augment the workforce, as well as necessitate additional training so that the workforce can operate and work with the technical equipment. “I don’t think we’ll see any kind of mass replacement anytime soon,” said Brown. “There’s still too big of a labor shortage for that.”
Connected devices make construction more efficient
Brown told Construction Dive that by 2030, the amount of devices connected to the internet will balloon from nearly 27 billion to 125 billion. Brown predicts the monitoring and connectedness will swell both on ongoing construction sites as well as completed projects.
Skanska, for example, is using InSite on its healthcare projects so that it can monitor in real-time variables like pressure, temperature, vibration, noise and dust. “We, our clients and nurses know exactly what the status is inside a construction zone at all times to make sure sensitive areas where patients are receiving care have no interruption or interference,” Brown explained.
On a larger scale, being able to monitor the movement of people and goods through connected devices will ultimately make the industry more efficient and effective, said Brown.