When the topic of robots in the workforce is brought up, it’s easy to feel a little uncomfortable. After all, we commonly hear comments like ‘one day when robots are doing our jobs’ or ‘a machine can do that, quicker and cheaper’. However, the truth is far less scary than these conversations and sensationalism.
Indeed, construction is rapidly moving towards its next phase of digital advancement – artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. While it may seem inevitable that certain roles will likely be replaced by machines in the future, the benefits of embracing AI and automation outweigh the potential negatives – especially when you take into account that AI is more likely to help create new jobs while enhancing industry efficiency.
When considered more closely, automation in construction provides way more that is good than bad for the industry’s workforce and the end-users who benefit from building projects.
Here are three of the most compelling reasons for the industry to embrace automation.
1. SAFER JOBSITES
Construction is most dangerous due to the physical demands of the work. According to Stats NZ, as of Q1 2020, 183,800 people were directly employed in the construction industry, making it one of the top three employment industries. Roughly 3.7% of total employment in New Zealand is found in the construction industry, with this figure increasing when taking into account construction-related employment. Yet, WorkSafe New Zealand recorded 13 work-related fatalities in construction last year, accounting for 12% of all worker deaths.
Clearly, the jobsite poses hazards that other industries rarely match, which means construction stakeholders have a responsibility to take every available precaution to make the job safer.
Thankfully, automation and AI open serious opportunities for improving construction safety. Automation and AI have the potential to:
• Reduce intensive manual labour and thereby the risk of human mistakes and injury; while robots are currently slower than humans at many tasks, they’re learning quickly
• Replace high-risk jobs – increasingly, machines are replacing the need for human workers in mines, on underwater jobsites or even in remote locations
• Work with existing safety gear – technology can be integrated with existing personal protective equipment (PPE) to help alert supervisors to the presence of personnel who lack PPE; robots can work to reduce the weight of heavy objects for human workers, enabling them to precisely install these objects without the risk of crushing accidents.
Furthermore, machine learning is also being used to identify safety concerns faster. Some smart companies are developing technology that can ‘see’ construction accidents before they happen. Technologies such as BIM 360 Construction IQ work to predict falls on the job, helping to mitigate the event that causes nearly 23% of deaths in construction.
How is this technology working so far? According to BAM Ireland, a Construction IQ user, the company has achieved a 20% reduction in quality and safety issues onsite. Construction IQ algorithms don’t just look at the number of quality control (QC) items, the technology also surfaces keywords such as ‘waterproofing details’ or ‘TPO damage’ to help identify high-risk issues, act as red flags and help to mitigate risk.
2. CLOSING THE GAP ON THE LABOUR SHORTAGE
While some are busy railing about machines taking over their jobs, New Zealand, like many other countries, is facing a labour shortage, even with an unemployment rate of 4%. This has been explained due to demand for labour exceeding supply within the construction industry, notably with the lack of migrant workers due to Covid-19, the always growing Auckland skyline and Christchurch – under reconstruction since the 2010/2011 earthquakes.
If implemented correctly, automation and robotics can also help improve the efficiency of the current workforce, with machines filling in for specific jobs where there is a shortage.
For example, human-intensive activities, such as excavation and prep work, can be reduced with the use of robotics.
Such technologies can take on tasks like operating heavy equipment and vehicles, which can keep the industry trucking (no pun intended) while the market catches up, helping to ensure that labour shortfalls don’t impact the bottom lines of human stakeholders and those workers who do have jobs.
AI can also be used for better labour planning, with automation in construction used to reduce large amounts of necessary but repetitive manual work. For instance, compiling a process like creating submittal logs has historically been tasked to a project team member, and it could take days and even weeks of their time to create, track and manage. But with automation software such as Pype, a log can be created instantly and tracked seamlessly throughout the process.
3. SMARTER BUSINESSES, SMARTER PROJECTS
As IBM’s Watson has proven, machines can indeed be more intelligent than us in a wide range of tasks. In many industries, this type of machine intelligence is working side by side with humans to improve decision-making and productivity.
In construction, we’re not there yet. Research firm McKinsey says: “Engineering and construction is behind the curve in implementing artificial intelligence solutions”, but adds that “while its customers are increasingly sophisticated, it remains severely under-digitised”. So, as owners demand intelligent operations and cutting-edge results, firms that can’t keep up will become irrelevant.
Stanford University’s ALICE, an AI simulation platform, perfectly exemplifies how companies can get faster, smarter and more productive. Starting from an initial construction plan where the early schedule and size of the project are defined by a human scheduler, ALICE uses the inputs to calculate millions of different scenarios that would require decades of work for a person to complete. ALICE’s AI leads to better designs with more options, fewer errors, better collaboration, less rework and more.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE FUTURE OF CONSTRUCTION
So, how can construction firms prepare for a new way of working, with automation and AI at our fingertips? It means taking an eyes-wide-open approach.
Be open to change
McKinsey research finds that “companies with a strong track record of digitisation are 50% more likely to generate profit from using AI”. If that’s not where your company is at right now, make an effort to start – even small steps will help.
Nurture employees’ development and hire right
Look to train internal employees on skills that will be needed with coming automation. For AI to be successful, we’ll need to equip our workers for success. Note that the future of construction work will demand a higher level of skill, as well as more frequent upgrades, so choose people who can handle the pace.
Double down on data collection
Data is the driving ingredient for making AI and automation a success in any business. Whether you adopt AI in the next year or the next decade, it’s wise to be data-driven to improve AI’s future at your company.
PREPARING FOR TOMORROW
AI is coming, whether we like it or not. The truth is, tomorrow becomes today shockingly quickly. Don’t assume you can adopt AI and automation when it’s already here and too late to get up to speed.
Plenty of leading companies are starting to embrace automation and AI, and if you want to remain competitive – whether as a massive firm or a boutique start-up – you need the right tools to do so. Make sure leadership understands this, even if you’re the one who has to bring it to their attention. So, start pursuing questions about tomorrow today, before it’s too late and you get left behind.
Yaz Shqara is a construction solutions executive at Autodesk, a world-leading provider of software services for the architecture, engineering and construction industries, amongst others