If the last few years have taught humanity anything, it’s that no industry is safe from the disruptive influence of technology. Who would have predicted a hundred years ago that, by 2017, some of the cars on the road would be driving themselves?
The construction industry is another sector that’s due for a major shakeup in the next few years. More specifically, bold claims are emerging about automation, and some of the ramifications are going to be as startling as they are exciting.
The beginning of the human-free construction site?
If you want a top-notch prognosticator to tell you about the future of construction sites, you can’t do much better than Balfour Beatty, a British multinational infrastructure company. It’s built rail systems, dams, motorways, tunnels and subways.
After evaluating where things are headed, it published a paper called “Innovation 2050: A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry.”
It’s true that Balfour Beatty’s projects are somewhat grander than the new sidewalk taking shape down the road from your house. Nevertheless, some of the shakeups it predicts for large-scale infrastructure could soon be directly applicable even to local construction projects:
- Detailed inspections of construction sites will soon be completed by flying drones, which could even deliver real-time data and predictions concerning structural and safety concerns.
- Robot cranes may help remove human error from the process of moving heavy loads of structural components or raw materials.
- 3-D and augmented-reality technology will allow project managers to monitor several major projects from a remote location, meaning fewer people subject to safety hazards.
What does a human-free construction industry mean for the world?
Suppose we’re able to remove human bodies—and human injury—from the construction industry entirely by doubling down on 3-D printers, drones, machine learning and other emerging technologies. How likely is it that these predictions will come true and every construction site will be human-free by 2050?
“I don’t think we’ll see human-free construction sites anytime soon,” said Brian Cook, vice president of Sales for software company Dataforma. “Even if robots were able to perfectly emulate construction and electrical contracting tasks, the real people who work in these jobs make the industry what it is.”
“The software Dataforma provides to electrical contractors and construction companies allows our clients to actually enhance their customer relationships through personalized, human interactions,” Cook said. “I just don’t think talking to a robot would make our clients’ customers as happy or satisfied with the overall results of their projects.”
Yet, we’ve seen any number of success stories already from elsewhere in the world. Small construction projects—like a bridge in Amsterdam—can now be built with 3-D printers and much smaller crews than conventional construction techniques would have required.
Look at this wild example: In 2015, Design Week in Beijing saw the unveiling of VULCAN, which was immediately hailed as one of the largest architectural structures of any kind produced using 3-D printing technology.
It’s still not a gargantuan structure by any means—it stands 2.88 meters tall and measures a little over 9 meters in length—but its design is breathtakingly complex and required the fabrication of 1,023 individual building units, or blocks. An architect responsible for its design, Yu Lei, declared that the construction industry would soon further “blur the boundaries between technology and art.”
“I don’t think we’ll see human-free construction sites anytime soon.”
—Brian Cook, Dataforma
Beyond aesthetic appeal, what do structures like these represent? They indicate that an artist may soon be able to draw up schematics for a new building and, with tools powered by machine learning, check it over for structural flaws or predicted failure points and move it quickly toward physical reality.
When the design checks out fully, that structure could be built in a breathtakingly short amount of time with just a couple humans present plus a team of efficient, fastidious and safe machines producing and assembling building units.
Success and sacrifice
To be blunt, human-free construction sites would leave us with fewer jobs—or at least, with fewer jobs of a particular kind. The Balfour Beatty report touches on jobs directly, pointing out that most of the jobs lost will be low-skill positions that are repetitive and potentially dangerous in nature.
The report states 65 percent of the children who are in school right now will go on to earn their livings in jobs that haven’t even been created yet. You’ve heard of the agile workforce, but we’re about to see this blossom in new ways, including a rocketing demand for well-rounded individuals who understand several branches of technology.
Yes, we’re going to need fewer unskilled workers and fewer workers in general, but that’s a ways off yet.
In the more immediate future, many people working in the construction industry may need to learn new skills and even return to school. Considering how smooth the solar power transition has been, and the number of jobs it delivered despite making some others obsolete—and despite having been turned into a political issue—it’s not hard to see how construction as a whole may soon follow suit in its own exciting ways.
Infrastructure large and small is vital in any modern economy, including America’s.
Quickly and efficiently building structures, such as roads, bridges and housing developments, lowers costs and widens margins for contractors. Furthermore, expediting the transportation of goods, materials and personnel makes project management easier and scheduling more reliable. The result is a more profitable construction project.
It makes sense for contractors to use technology to maximize productivity, but we also need to consider how to protect human jobs, too.
Yes, automation is going to impact construction sites and contracting jobs, but we still have time to minimize the potential negative impacts of this. So, let’s get to work.