How Robots Will Change the Construction Workforce

If robots will one day take over construction jobs, as predicted in a white paper by construction giant Balfour Beatty, that day is a long way off, given everything that would need to change.

Consider automated construction equipment. Currently, an automated truck is being tested at a mining facility in Australia. But transporting truckloads of metal over the same routes again and again is a far cry from the realities of commercial construction, where every project — and every day on a project — is different.

If some machines do eventually take over for humans, they may be filling empty positions instead of sending people to the unemployment line. Automated forklifts, for example, could help solve the shortage of qualified forklift operators in the construction industry.

The 63 percent of contractors who reported a shortage of masons in a recent National Association of Home Builders survey would likely welcome SAM, the semiautonomous bricklaying robot. It can lay up to 3,000 bricks a day compared to 600 to 1,000 for a skilled mason. The robot won’t replace masons entirely, though; it needs four workers to feed brick and mortar, smooth the mortar and clean the brick. Humans also have to lay the bricks for the corners and the tops of structures, tasks SAM can’t handle. So it’s a win-win for contractors who needs bricks laid and masons who want to keep their jobs.

Rather than replacing humans, it’s more likely, at least in the near term, that artificial intelligence will help construction employees do their jobs more efficiently — positive news considering that construction’s productivity, or gross value added per hour worked, has fallen by half since the late 1960s according to the Economist.

When it comes to semiautonomous earthmoving equipment, the software and sensors of modern grade control systems make operators’ jobs easier, improve their accuracy and make them more productive.

Drones are cutting the time it takes surveyors to do their work, facilitating inspections that might otherwise put engineers in danger and allowing onsite and offsite personnel to more easily track materials, equipment and progress. The data and images they provide can be shared among stakeholders, including subcontractors, GCs and clients, to improve communication and boost transparency.

Even as robots take over certain repetitive or dangerous construction tasks (like some aspects of demolition, which remote-controlled robots are beginning to perform), their presence will create other types of work, such as programming and controlling equipment, working alongside it and/or analyzing the data it provides. And yes, one day many buildings may be 3D printed or prefabbed offsite, but the same points apply. So while construction jobsites may look very different two decades from now, humans won’t be missing from the picture.