Automation is a hot topic these days, both on the ground in industries across the country, and within the political arena.
Just say ‘self-driving cars’ and you’ll launch a thousand debates on the topic, but the reality is that the technology in that area is just about ready. It’s the people—and regulations—that need to catch up.
In industries like manufacturing and assembly lines, automation makes sense. In many cases, those machines are engaging in a repetitive task that can be done more quickly and accurately by machines than by people.
Construction is a different beast: each project, however large or small, has its own set of challenges and parameters. Automating many of the tasks won’t be possible with current technology. But there’s no doubt that more complex machines and automation are on the rise, and threaten to make humans redundant in some areas faster than they can be retrained and redeployed in roles, some of which don’t exist yet.
Ultimately, how automation will affect the construction industry depends heavily on what segment you’re referring to, but there are some general points about automation that we should all be considering.
Automating machinery makes sense… some of the time
In areas like oil and gas, mining, commercial / industrial construction, there are a lot of machines used for repetitive tasks that could be automated. While the upfront costs for setting up automation are very high, the downstream ability to reduce downtime with machine monitoring and anticipation of issues, to say nothing of the fact that machines can work non-stop in a way that people can’t, means those costs can be recouped and then some.
There are many parts of the construction industry, however, where automation will never be able to replace the expertise and oversight of equipment operators and laborers. Even in OE’s field—excavation—while automation is possible in terms of GPS and control of grading machines, as two examples, there are a multitude of other tasks that could not be left in the hands of a machine. Artificial intelligence (AI) and the capacity it will have to enable machines to learn may one day lead us to the point where people are redundant… But not yet.
What kind of automation in construction IS possible?
Automation reduces errors, improves efficiency and quality, ultimately reducing costs of production, and there are certainly ways the construction industry will move towards leveraging these advantages.
Think 3D printing of walls and buildings. Think pre-fabrication of elements on an as needed basis, on site. Think drones for monitoring large sites. These are cost saving measures that construction could (and in some cases already do) leverage. Another is LIDAR—Light Detection and Ranging. This is the technology behind self-driving cars, and it is possible to imagine machines and trucks driving around a construction site, without a driver.
In the ever changing landscape of an excavation site, however, the learning curve might be too steep for machines to cope with. A small, confined site might be managed with a robot driven tractor, but on a larger scale, there are so many factors to take into consideration, and so much knowledge that goes into evaluating these factors, that it will be a long while before major projects could be fully automated. These machines still require a human to oversee that the work is being done accurately, within parameters.
Another reality, however, is that the construction industry, as a whole, is experiencing a labor shortage: there’s plenty of work but not enough people to get the job done. Automating more basic, repetitive tasks, could open up other positions to manage the technology that people could be trained for.
Bottom line? Construction is a growth industry and automation is going to be a part of our future. We need to rethink how we use it and where we need human expertise so that we can shape our plans for the future, and find the resources with the training and expertise to fulfill them.