The impact and opportunities of automation in construction

The current labor shortage is one reason why automation, if done correctly, could have a positive effect on the construction industry.

Automation is when machines do the jobs that people used to do. It's been happening for a long time and it's not going to stop. Construction is a good example. Automation can help construction workers be more productive. That means they can build more things in less time. But we need to be ready for this change. We need to learn new skills so we can keep up with the machines.

What does automation mean for the construction industry?

In the past, construction productivity increased slowly at best. In the United States, from 1947 to 2010, productivity barely changed. Meanwhile, in other industries that have embraced automation, such as manufacturing and agriculture, productivity increased by more than 8 times and 16 times respectively. So, one major benefit of automation in construction is the potential for a large increase in productivity.

There are three main ways that construction can be automated. The first way is through robots and machines doing physical tasks on-site, like laying bricks and paving roads. The second way is through the automation of modular construction- having things made in factories, including 3-D printing of components such as facades. The third factor is digitization and the automation of design, planning, and management procedures. This has led to vast efficiencies on-site. For example, building information modeling allows for better coordination between planners and general contractors. This leads to fewer mistakes during on-site execution.

What will happen to the jobs of builders when automation becomes more common?

If the construction industry shifts to modular construction, it could have a significant impact on the workforce. This transition will take time, but factories that produce individual components for homes (or modules) lend themselves to more use of machines than what can be done on-site. Some companies, such as Katerra, are already building these modules. A lot of the construction in these factories is still done manually, but over time, as scale increases, the process will become more automated. We predict that by 2030, around 15 to 20 percent of new building construction will be modular. This means that the majority of construction will still take place on site. However, this market is growing and it is important to keep an eye on it.

Some activities that used to take place on-site will now take place elsewhere. For example, construction workers will use tablets to access building plans and drones to do site walkthroughs instead of doing those things themselves. This means that workers will need to learn to work with machines, for example by using a tablet to access building plans or operating a drone.

Are there enough jobs in the future?

There are many opportunities for automation across industries. However, construction is less likely to be affected than other industries, like manufacturing. Automating easy tasks that are done repetitively and in a predictable environment is possible, but construction's environment is usually unpredictable, except when modular-construction techniques are used. There are two reasons why the unpredictability of construction is so high. First, pieces move around a lot and it is difficult to predict how everything will fit together. Second, every construction site and project is customized to meet the specific demands of the customer, the architectural design, and the geographical and site requirements.

There will be more jobs in construction in the future. This is because there is a lot of work that needs to be done, like building new roads and houses. Some of this work can be done with machines, but we will still need people to do the work. So, there will be a lot of jobs for a long time.

If there is a slowdown in global growth, it could lower the demand for infrastructure investment. But usually, and we expect this to continue, there is enough work to do.

How will automation affect construction wages?

Despite everyone having enough work to do, we expect a larger spread in wages. In the long term, automation is likely to increase productivity and allow wages to rise for workers with advanced skills. At least during the transition time—which can take a decade or longer—those with advanced skills will be paid more because they will be in higher demand, while those more exposed to predictable, repetitive tasks will be in less demand and may see a slowdown in their wage growth.

Construction jobs are usually in the middle-wage range, at least in the United States. They are not easy to automate, so they might help to fill in the gap of people who have lost their jobs in the middle class.

How can the industry manage the upcoming workforce skills transition?

As is the case in all industries, construction will see increasing automation. This will create a skill mismatch where workers will still need some physical skills, like being able to drive and maneuver heavy equipment. However, they will also need more technological skills.

The public sector, private sector, and industry associations will all need to work together to help workers adjust to this change and develop the necessary skills.

In the past, the public sector has been responsible for supplying education and basic skills. But this is changing. Curricula must now shift to meet current and future needs, especially in terms of technological and socioemotional skills. There will also be a growing need to retrain and update the skills of workers who left formal schooling many years ago. This means that the education system must evolve to provide lifelong learning opportunities.

Meanwhile, the private sector has a responsibility to address the more specialized skills needs of the workforce. A majority of executives recognize that they have a strong role to play in this. However, historically construction has invested much less than other industries in employees’ skills. This is partially a result of the predominance of subcontractors and high shares of temporary labor. But as all firms face the same skills shift, it will become increasingly difficult to find qualified people on the market. Institutions must preempt the need and provide access to skill-development opportunities, investing in their current workforce so they are prepared for the job ahead.

There are many collaborative efforts happening in the construction industry. For example, the Technical University of Munich in Germany organizes a platform of industry players that trains participants in digital construction through boot camps, hackathons, immersion days, and peer exchanges. The United Kingdom has a government body called Homes England that is working to launch a research program on modular construction. This program will monitor and report on a couple dozen sites. The goal is to compare these projects with traditional build approaches, thus providing the industry with data on emerging technologies.

The outlook for automation in construction is good. That doesn't mean that all the work will go away. We need to do some work across industries to get ready for the future. But automation will likely make us more productive, increase our wages, and help us meet the growing demand for infrastructure and real estate.

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