Robots and other tech may lighten the load for craft workers and shorten project timeless so fewer workers are needed.
Construction companies are facing challenges in their search for skilled workers. In a 2019 survey from Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and Autodesk, 80 percent of firms said they struggle to fill craft positions. This year, due to a surge in contractor confidence, nearly 65 percent of firms expect to increase their staffing levels according to a January report from Associated Builders and Contractors. This means that the need for skilled workers will likely increase.
Some firms are turning to technology to complete onsite work faster, thereby reducing labor requirements for hard-to-fill craft positions. According to the AGC/Autodesk survey, the hardest-to-fill craft positions include cement mason, concrete worker, carpenter and heavy equipment operator.
Here’s a look at some of the tech that could help take the sting out of the skilled worker shortage.
These days, there simply aren’t enough masons to go around. A brick-laying robot from Construction Robotics called SAM, short for Semi-Automated Mason, could help ease the shortage. SAM lifts and places bricks with a robotic arm, a conveyor belt, a mortar mixer and a pump. It won’t put skilled masons out of work, since SAM still needs assistance from a human to build up corners and spread the mortar; but SAM could help masons do more work in less time.
Another robot from Construction Robotics, called MULE, or Material Unit Lift Enhancer, lifts materials weighing up to 135 pounds for jobs like building cement walls. MULE allows concrete masons to finish a job faster.
When Todd Berich, president and owner of Berich Masonry, introduced SAM, he believed that it would assist in finishing projects faster. As he told Inside Unmanned Systemsin 2019, “We knew we were going to need some help completing upcoming jobs. The workforce shortage has hit our industry hard, and talented craftspeople are in short supply.”
Scott Peters, cofounder of Construction Robotics, told Fortune that when MULE and SAM were introduced, some workers welcomed them but others feared they would lose their jobs. Instead of being replaced, however, masons have gained a robotic assistant.
Brick-laying robots aren’t the only robots being developed to complete tasks on worksites. For example, last year Advanced Construction Robotics introduced IronBot, an autonomous robot that can lift, carry and place rebar in horizontal reinforced concrete applications. Also new is TyBot, a rebar-tying robot that ties rebar intersections without the need for any pre-mapping or programming. It autonomously navigates its working area and identifies and ties intersections with no human intervention.
The annual global market for construction robots could expand tenfold, to $226 million, between 2018 to 2025, according to market research firm Tractica. Tractica expects 7,000 new construction and demolition robots to join the workforce in that timeframe.
Josh Cheney, customer outcome executive at Autodesk Construction Solutions, recently noted on Autodesk’s construction blog, “We are kidding ourselves if we don’t think robots will play an ever-increasing role in construction.”
“We are kidding ourselves if we don’t think robots will play an ever-increasing role in construction.”
Exoskeletons, which range from full-body suits to limb extensions to vests, can reduce physical stress and help workers complete tasks faster and with fewer injuries. Some exoskeletons make heavy tools feel nearly weightless, while others give workers bionic strength.
A whole-body suit from suitX, for example, can support workers’ backs when they bend over and lift. The EksoVest from Ekso Bionics can help workers hold tools at chest level or above. Levitate’s Airframe relieves upper-extremity muscle and joint strain when workers complete repetitive tasks above shoulder level.
The cost of these devices has begun to decrease, and more construction companies appear to be seeing the benefit of protecting workers who are hard to replace. Consigli Construction, for example, has used exoskeletons that take the weight of a hammer drill off of a worker’s arm when chipping masonry, according to Constructor Magazine.
Prefabricating components such as walls and bathrooms in a factory and shipping them to sites to be assembled into buildings reduces the need for skilled workers, including carpenters.
Modular commercial housing has seen an increase, and modular hotels are having an even bigger moment. Marriott plans to complete the world’s tallest modular hotel, the AC Hotel New York NoMad, in 2020 using prefabricated and even pre-furnished rooms. The hotel will be stacked rather than built.
In the future, construction may be borrowing more and from manufacturing practices, leveraging a host of technologies and building approaches. The more machines can step up and work, the more workers can step back and supervise. It’s a win-win for skilled workers, the construction industry, and the tech companies behind the machines.
Laura Moretz writes about construction, technology, robotics and more. She lives in North Carolina.