Robots on the worksite: the future of construction in the U.S.

A study by Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) analyses the role of automation on the construction industry

In the not too distant future, robots will be working on construction sites and innovation will rewrite the story of the world’s infrastructure projects. By 2057, 2.7 million positions in the U.S. construction sector currently held by humans could be filled by machines, which would free up human beings to cover different sorts of roles and learn new professional skills created by the innovation and new technology that will transform the entire sector.

This is the future of the construction industry, where automation will play an ever greater role. The process has already started, and it is destined to continue. The Midwest Economic Policy Institute (MEPI) has calculated the scale of this change, at least for the U.S. market, in a study called “The Potential Economic Consequences of a Highly Automated Construction Industry.”

According to the study, the impact on labour costs would be enormous. Construction worker displacement could reduce labor income by a net of $31.5 billion (in current dollars) if this automation process were to be completed. These savings should be invested in new training for the most technical positions.

Automation in construction industry: how will work change

The most classic example of automation in the construction industry is using robots to lay bricks for wall construction. These machines are capable of stacking thousands of bricks a day. A normal bricklayer can place 400-600.

The first of these machines, the Semi-Automated Mason (SAM), was created by a New York company called Construction Robotics and can lay 2,000-3,000 bricks in an eight-hour day. The second, called Hadrian X, was designed by Fastbrick Robotics in Perth and is capable of handling 1,000 bricks a day.

“Advancements in technology have already dramatically re-shaped American manufacturing,” said study co-author Robert Bruno. “Similar changes are already underway in the construction sector, and it is vital for policymakers to begin thinking about ways to embrace progress.”

The U.S. infrastructure industry urgently needs modernization today, also in terms of its workforce. The sector employs 6 million people, 4 million of whom are workers. However, large companies complain about the difficulty in finding sufficiently skilled workers, so much so that the study estimated there were 200,000 job vacancies in 2017 because of the difficulty in finding adequate professional skills on the market. Consequently, automation could be an efficient way to fill certain jobs. The unfilled jobs could be assigned to machines and robots, without having a negative impact on existing workers.

Automation in construction: the fourth industrial revolution

The process has begun, and it is impossible to stop it. Not only in infrastructure, but in all sectors of industry. Large companies are increasingly adopting IT technologies, robots, automation as part of their innovation programmes.

Although the pace seems slower than in the manufacturing sector, technological innovations has also been sweeping the construction world.

Virtual reality, augmented reality, and drones are now frequently used for different purposes, from refining calculations to the analysis of site areas. They are also used to improve workers’ safety.

The same is true for BIM (Building Information Modeling), a methodology uses various technological platforms to model a series of processes necessary to complete a project from design to completion, as well as helping with the maintenance of the work itself. BIM lets the architect create a virtual model of the construction, before its actual physical construction, thus ensuring an immediate comparison between the design and the construction phase. This reduces errors and construction time.

But BIM is just one of the many tools used to put technology at the service of construction. In China, for example, the use of 3D printers to produce materials necessary for the construction of buildings is now widespread. In 2015, a 57-storey building built in just 19 days thanks to this technology, according to The Guardian.

More investments for the future

Innovation is pointing the way forward, but the renewal of the construction industry is a slow — albeit irreversible — process. According to a study carried out by McKinsey & Co. in 2018, less than 1% of the sector’s turnover is invested in research and development, a much smaller share than the 3.5%-4.5% in auto and aerospace.

A pity, according to McKinsey&Co, because companies that have invested in artificial intelligence have 50% more chance of generating profits, as well as resulting in a productivity increase of between 50% and 60%.

According to McKinsey&Co, investing in innovative solutions and new technology could increase global productivity in the sector by an annual amount of $1.6 trillion.

Investing is therefore an obligatory way to grow in the future and remain competitive for companies that make their living by building complex infrastructures.