Photo courtesy of Construction Robotics.
The construction industry has a complicated relationship with technology, and perhaps nowhere is that complexity more felt than when it comes to autonomous robots. The industry continues to face a labor shortage and is now facing a whole new set of challenges brought on by COVID-19. Firms are being pushed to get more creative and innovative.
The question inevitably raised in discussions around automation is whether autonomous robots will end up taking jobs away from human workers. The answer to that question is not so simple. In the coming decades, some human construction workers are expected to be replaced by robots. However, the industry will always depend on human ingenuity. Whether that means retraining workers to help ensure the robotic helpers are functioning properly or using robots that are dependent on human operators, human workers will have a place in the industry for the foreseeable future.
In spite of these fears, some construction firms are pushing ahead with adopting autonomous robotics for a variety of reasons, particularly safety, efficiency, and cost-savings. The following are five ways autonomous robotics are helping construction companies do more with less.
1. Addressing the Labor Shortage
According to the National Center for Construction Education & Research, 41% of construction workers on the job today are set to retire by 2031. What makes matters even worse is that fewer and fewer younger people decide to pursue careers in the trades. Work needs to get done one way or another, and companies have found they can get better use out of their workers by deploying automation for certain labor-intensive, repetitive tasks.
“Skilled tradesmen are aging and fewer people are willing to enter the construction field,” Arch-Con Corp. President Jason Cooper told Bisnow.com. “The introduction of autonomous equipment will allow for not only a solution to the issue but for a reduction in labor costs and an increase in productivity.”
Autonomous robots offer several advantages over human workers. They don’t require breaks, don’t get a paycheck, and can work continuously overnight. By using autonomous robotics for certain tasks, companies can use their human labor pool more efficiently, allowing them to tackle more mission-critical jobs.
2. Cost Savings
Autonomous construction machinery is costly upfront, but factoring in long-term costs of a human workforce like payroll, benefits, and Workers’ Comp, robots are relatively cheap by comparison. While autonomous robots do require ongoing maintenance, the amount of work you get out of them compared to the recurring costs tends to balance out and then some over time.
By deploying robots to handle more repetitive jobs, such as bricklaying or hanging drywall, firms can reduce the amount of labor they need for a project. Since robots can typically perform their jobs faster than their human counterparts, work gets done quickly and with fewer errors. With most construction companies already operating with razor-thin margins, every opportunity to lower costs makes a big difference to the bottom line.
3. Improving Worker Safety
Robots might need repairs from time to time, but they’ll never be hurt in a jobsite accident. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 21% of all workplace deaths in 2018 occurred in the construction industry. The human body is fragile and subject to fatigue or injury. Repetitive motions, in particular, put stress on the human body that robots are all but immune to. If a key human worker is sidelined by an injury, it can throw off an entire project’s schedule.
Robots, on the other hand, can make the same motion 24 hours a day without as much as wincing. Many of the applications construction firms employ autonomous machinery are focused on these types of tasks, conserving their human labor for jobs that require more finesse and thinking.
With labor forces spread thin, construction firms have very little leeway when it comes to deploying workers. Any disruption in their worker availability can create a chain reaction that throws off an entire project schedule. Using automated robots to supplement their workforce allows companies more flexibility in where their labor resources are dedicated, making it easier to adapt to unexpected absences.
As priorities or tasks change mid-project, companies using autonomous robots can quickly shift resources to accommodate such requests. Autonomous machinery can step in to perform more labor-intensive duties while human workers are diverted elsewhere as needed. Adding an autonomous helper to a construction company’s roster can provide some much-needed flexibility.
5. Efficiency Improvements
Some aspects of construction work traditionally require several human workers tied to assigned tasks until a given phase of the project is complete. Some autonomous robots are capable of performing such jobs on their own, leaving human workers free to work on other jobs that actually require their attention.
A good example of this is drones. Drones are capable of performing complicated surveying work with a single human operator, or even fully autonomously. It’s a case where a specific piece of technology deployed in the right way can take the place of a surveying team, freeing up workers to be deployed elsewhere for more essential tasks.
Since autonomous robotics technology is still quite new, its long-term place in the construction field is unknown. Its emergence in the industry is a sign that despite the ever-present labor challenges, firms will find a way to get work done on-time and under-budget. It’s not a perfect solution, but an autonomous robotics program can go a long way towards helping companies hit their marks more consistently.