Although the construction industry has taken many big steps toward adopting construction technology, as a whole it remains one of the least automated industries. Large segments of the construction industry still consider robots as a far-off technology of the future, with no practical application for their companies. That attitude has been slowly shifting, and new research is forecasting the nascent construction robotics market is poised to explode.
Construction is facing a labor shortage that grows more serious every year. Veteran workers continue retiring in greater numbers than young workers step up to replace them. A recent study by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found that a staggering 70 percent of construction companies are having difficulty finding skilled workers.
Worker Shortage Seen as Key Driver
This worker squeeze is slowly but surely leading some companies to reconsider how automation and robotics could play a role in keeping up with demand in spite of the labor shortage. According to a new study by market intelligence firm Tractica, interest in construction robots continues to grow. The firm is predicting the construction robotics market, worth $22.7 million in 2018, could grow as high as $226 million annually in the next five years, with as many as 7,000 robots to be deployed on jobsites by then.
Construction is facing a labor shortage that grows more serious every year.
“To get qualified people to handle a loader or a haul truck or even run a plant, they’re hard to find right now. Nobody wants to get their hands dirty anymore. They want a nice, clean job in an office,” Mike Moy, a mining plant manager at Lehigh Hanson, told the Associated Press.
It’s still relatively early days for robots in construction, but they’ve already been put into use on tasks ranging from bricklaying to rebar tying to demolition. Robotic exoskeletons are being used to lighten the lifting load for construction workers, and automated drone aircraft are being used to conduct site surveys in a fraction of the time human surveyors can do the same job. The use of robots in construction has many potential benefits around worker safety, as well as overall productivity and profitability.
Expected Impact on Workers
One concern inevitably raised any time the topic of robotics in construction comes up is what impact it will have on workers’ job security. Fortunately, much of the demand for construction robots today is for machines designed to work in tandem with humans, rather than replacing them. Workers may have to learn a few new tricks, but so far, concerns of robots outright stealing jobs from people seem largely unfounded.
“We need all of the robots we can get, plus all of the workers working, in order to have economic growth,” Michael Chui, partner at McKinsey Global Institute in San Francisco told the Associated Press. “As machines do some of the work that people used to do, the people have to migrate and transition to other forms of work, which means lots of retraining.”
Berich Masonry in Englewood, Colo. recently trained its workers in the use of a new bricklaying robot called SAM (Semi-Automated Mason). SAM is equipped with a mechanical arm that can pick up bricks, cover them with mortar and put them in place. The company deployed SAM to erect an exterior brick wall on a local elementary school, where it laid about 3,000 bricks over an eight-hour “shift,” considerably faster than human bricklayers can manage. For their part, workers continually loaded SAM up with bricks and cleaned up any excess mortar.
There’s a shortage of skilled workers, less and less bricklayers joining the trade. The younger generation, they don’t want to do it. SAM didn’t replace anybody.Zachary Podkaminer
With a bit of robotic assistance, a crew is capable of working faster and more efficiently, while minimizing the impact of repetitive strain on their bodies.
“It’s really about the worker,” Zachary Podkaminer, a director with SAM creator Construction Robotics told the Englewood Herald. “There’s a shortage of skilled workers, less and less bricklayers joining the trade. The younger generation, they don’t want to do it. SAM didn’t replace anybody.”
Robots Take to the Sky
The word “robot” may conjure up images of humanoid-looking machines with limbs and a face, but autonomous drones are another form of construction robotics being enthusiastically explored by C&E firms around the globe.
Japanese construction giant Komatsu equips its drones with software by a company called Skycatch, which allows autonomous capturing, processing and analysis of aerial image data gathered by drone aircraft. According to Equipment World, Komatsu currently uses these drones on more than 5,500 job sites. The company says using Skycatch Explore1 drones results in a big boost in efficiency and accuracy, with 3D imagery accurate up to five centimeters. The 3D site images now take survey crews about 30 minutes to assemble. In the past, this was a task that took crews a whole day to compile.
There are many reasons C&E firms are turning to automation. Increasing demand coupled with a shrinking labor force is making the idea a lot more practical as companies are continually forced to do more with less. If the expected thousands of robots make their way to job sites worldwide in the next few years, firms will likely be keeping a close eye on their progression.