Construction is a $10 trillion global industry with a severe worker shortage and weak productivity growth, making it ripe for a robotic takeover.
Productivity, the total economic output per worker, in the construction industry has remained flat, partly because of the slow adoption of new technologies across the industry. Since 1945, productivity in manufacturing, retail, and agriculture has grown 1,500 percent, while it has barely gone up in construction.
The construction industry’s technology gap may not last for very long; robots are poised to get to work, as the worker shortage persists. As of February 2017, nearly 200,000 construction jobs were left unfilled across the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The U.S. construction industry’s unemployment is at its lowest level in a decade, as fewer young people enter the construction workforce. The door remains wide open for robotic disruption.
On average, 98 percent of construction megaprojects go over budget. In a multi-trillion dollar global industry, even the slightest uptick in efficiency could amount to hundreds of millions in savings.
The rise of technologies like artificial intelligence and mobile digital fabrication stands to strengthen the development of the next generation of robotic helpers in the field. Whether the ‘bots’ will simply augment, fundamentally change, or altogether replace current jobs is yet to be determined. Previous generations of robotic tech did mix of all three, depending on their relationship to construction operations.
Robotics in use in the field today are helping to pave the way for future builders by showing the technology’s potential to aid productivity and eliminate rework. For robotics to permeate construction, the industry needs to continue to outfit machines with sensors to gather and grant machine intelligence. That information is being used to give machines the ability to transmit data, such as to notify owners when equipment is failing or needs maintenance and where it is located on the jobsite.
Telematics could one day work in conjunction with robotics. GPS and telematics information could be combined with jobsite workflow data. If an area of the site is running low on a certain type of lumber, contractors could deliver the material from elsewhere on the site or bring in a new load from a nearby supplier, all before a work backup occurs.
Lumber could be dispatched by way of an automated maintenance vehicle before workers are aware that additional materials are needed. Robotically controlled drones could safely drop the lumber at a designated spot on the site.
Some drones also have artificial intelligence capabilities, allowing them to recognize and track objects on construction sites while on-board software lets crews on the ground immediately review the information. That means no more waiting to upload the data to the cloud and then again for analysis back at the office.
Another robotic tool is exoskeletons. These wearable, powered or unpowered full-body or partial suits are used primarily in the medical field. In the construction industry, exoskeletons can augment human motion to enhance lifting strength or reduce strain and improve output for repetitive tasks like squatting, bending, or walking.
Although incoming robotic innovations challenge the status quo, they are already proving helpful in addressing challenges facing the industry, including safety, productivity, scheduling, and on-time completion. The challenges that robotics solve for the construction industry will lead to more growth than ever before.
This article previously appeared in the CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365 newsletter.