By 2040, jobsites will bear little resemblance to what we know today.
Jump in a time machine and set it for a construction jobsite in 2040. What will you see when you get out? A well-choreographed ballet starring augmented humans and autonomous equipment, according to Helge Jacobsen, United Rentals’ vice president for operations excellence and general manager of the Advanced Solutions Group.
A virtual grid
“The construction jobsite will be on a virtual grid that is integrated with design software,” said Jacobsen. “We will know where everything is supposed to be at any point in time, and coordination of material, people and equipment will feel very different than it does today. Their interactions will look almost like a carefully choreographed dance.”
Smaller, autonomous equipment
The familiar dozers, loaders and excavators will have disappeared, replaced by streamlined machines with no driver cabs. “A huge part of the work being done today is low-skilled, repetitive and adds little value to the project.” said Jacobsen. “I think we will find ways of completing these tasks with autonomous equipment.”
“The opposite is also true,” Jacobsen adds. “We have a part of the work that is high-skilled and adds tons of value to the project."
Since there will be no need to have humans inside the machinery, it will be smaller and more agile. Various pieces of equipment will work together in teams to execute different tasks.
“We are going to find ways of using technology to augment human capabilities — sight and strength, for example. You will have people walking around with almost supernatural capabilities.”
Workers with superhuman capabilities
There will be fewer human workers, and many of those who are onsite will be wearing “bionic” exoskeletons so they can perform physically challenging tasks without breaking a sweat.
“We are going to find ways of using technology to augment human capabilities — sight and strength, for example,” Jacobsen explained. “You will have people walking around with almost supernatural capabilities.”
Fewer onsite workers
Some of the workers you won’t see on the jobsite will be clocking into the job from a remote location. “With robots, you can weld remotely, you can do excavation remotely; I think a lot of the jobs today that are onsite and unsafe are going to be done in safe environments in an office or even in your home, using augmented or virtual reality,” said Jacobsen.
The road from here to there
We already have most of the technologies that will enable the jobsite of the future to become a reality, said Jacobsen. “The huge barrier is cost; it has to get to the point where it is cost effective. That’s not only the cost of the technologies, but also the cost and time involved in setting them up, deploying them and maintaining them.”
Location technologies will have to get better and more precise to make the jobsite grid — and the choreography that depends on it — possible.
VR technology is probably close to where it needs to be, said Jacobsen, but workers will need access to fast, safe and reliable broadband connections like 5G before they can work remotely. Those consistent 5G connections will also be necessary for autonomous vehicles. “The thought of a truck losing sight of where it is as it’s going 50 mph down a road is a very scary scenario,” Jacobsen added.
Obstacles in the way
The construction industry will have to be ready to change, and it won’t be easy to get everyone’s buy-in. Skilled tradespeople, for example, may oppose new ways of working if they perceive their jobs are at risk. Plus, if companies aren’t willing to redesign their processes to take advantages of the new technologies, they will be adding to costs instead of reducing them.
“I think there are real obstacles for us to get to this future state, especially if we continue to allow things to just plow on as they’ve always been,” said Jacobsen. But, he added, “I think there are enough people who are trying to create the disruptions now that we will have to go there.”
Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.