15th February 2018
Focus – Robots and Construction

Construction – are the robots coming for our jobs?

Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson believes that workers should ‘embrace an android’ and welcome the rise of robots in the workplace, commenting that the increased use of technology will ultimately create as many jobs as it destroys. Experts agree that amongst the areas that are now expected to benefit from the increased use of technology, construction is one of the biggest.

A brave new world?

It wasn’t that long ago that science fiction writers foresaw a new millennium where our daily lives would be entirely run by robots. Clearly, we didn’t reach that point by the year 2000, but the exploitation of technology in helping us accomplish everyday tasks is steadily increasing.

But what will this widespread introduction of new technology mean for jobs? The rise of the robots and the increasing use of artificial intelligence has opened the debate as to whether whole professions could be eliminated, as more and more tasks become routinely automated.

The building site of the future

Are we on the cusp of what’s been dubbed the fourth industrial age? Could we soon see drones circling overhead and capturing images of a building site, robotic bulldozers preparing building plots, and houses being run off from 3D printers?

In the short term, we are probably more likely to see components, rather than whole houses, produced in this way. However, drones and robotic machinery, including self-drive vehicles, are beginning to be more widely used in construction, just as they have been for some time now in the automotive and computer industries.

The goal of all these new IT initiatives is to make processes safer, cheaper, faster, and more productive. Poor comparative productivity is proving a major concern to the government, as we are currently languishing well down in the world rankings. Productivity represents the total economic output per worker, and in the UK construction industry it has remained largely flat for some years, in part due to the slow take-up of new technologies.

Could robot workers help tackle the skills gap?

As the introduction of automation becomes widespread, every sector should benefit from lower costs resulting from technological innovation. Falling business overheads could spell good news for many parts of the economy, especially sectors like construction.

With Brexit now clearly on the horizon, the press has filled many column inches with comments about the increasing skills gap in the building sector, a shortage that could be set to worsen once we leave the EU. However, increased use of the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and new technology could arguably offset some of that manpower deficit that we’re currently experiencing.

As old jobs go, new trades emerge

Some experts are suggesting that as many as 600,000 jobs could be at risk of being replaced by robots over the next two decades. With an ageing workforce, machines may well claim jobs, but the pool of workers to apply for them will be shrinking anyway. Inevitably, operators in some sectors won’t espouse new technology fast or effectively enough, and will find themselves steadily declining, becoming the dinosaurs of their industries.

However, a look back in history should give us cause for optimism; there are plenty of examples from the first industrial revolution that show mankind’s ingenuity will inevitably unleash and develop many new trades, creating more employment opportunities, effectively counteracting the threats posed. What is clear is that we need to be putting plans and training programmes in place now to ensure we can adequately address the challenges that we will shortly face.

Why we shouldn’t underestimate the human factor

But before we all get too carried away, it’s important not to underestimate the continuing need for human intervention at all levels. There are clearly limits to the services that robots and artificial intelligence are likely to be able to adequately provide within the construction industry.

Every building project is subtly different, and each has a long list of potential variables, including things like building regulations and constraints, customer needs, specialised materials and finishes, and that’s before you consider the other unpredictable factors, such as the inevitable eccentricity of the British weather, and its effects on site conditions.

Co-ordination and management of resources, the intricacies of planning and scheduling, the detailed evaluation of data, the effective weighing up of risks, the employment of highly-specialised crafts and skills, and not forgetting the need for effective client liaison, are all likely to remain solely the preserve of experienced human operators for some time to come.