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automation in construction vs labor

Human Meets Machine: Why Investing in Both Labor and Automation in Construction Is Essential

How Automation Helps Worker Do Their Jobs  

Large-scale 3D printers capable of constructing an entire skyscraper. Drones utilized for inspection of commercial construction sites. Robot-powered heavy equipment manned by remote control. According to Building Design and Construction, these are just some of the realistic ways that automation in construction is starting to materialize around the world.

Yet, not everyone in construction agrees that automation is the right way to go. Even from popular culture, it’s clear that a robot takeover is a commonplace fear for many. From Battlestar Galactica, The Matrix and Black Mirror, Hollywood continuously plays off the idea of what happens when artificial intelligence takes control. While construction professionals might not be fearing for their lives, many do have concerns about their job security. After all, what will happen to the blue collar workers if robots take over their jobs? While this is a worry rooted in well-intentioned concerns, it’s less credible than common workplace gossip.

Nonetheless, it remains a widespread concern.

According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of adults in the US are actively worried about automation technologies replacing jobs currently carried out by humans.

Even more, 76% of people are concerned that automation is going to increase economic inequality while 64% feel it will take away humankind’s purpose in life. Although this might sound dramatic, it truly illustrates human’s natural reluctance to accept automation wholeheartedly into our workplaces.

Resistance isn’t the way to go when discussing automation in the construction industry. Rather than focusing solely on replacing all construction labor with robotics and artificial intelligence, let’s find common ground. Instead of two separate conversations, it is important to look for ways to implement automation to make work smarter for laborers and increase job opportunities on the whole.

Machines Won’t Replace Field Workers

Just consider the ongoing labor shortage in the commercial construction industry. The industry is in no position to replace all this lost labor with automation. According to the current automation technology available, it is impossible to replace the commercial construction labor force with automated systems completely. It takes skilled workers to operate automated systems. In addition, we still need laborers to complete manual tasks that cannot be done by drones, software, or robotic equipment.

Even if the technology was already in place to take over, at the heart of it, construction is still a very human-centric business. Complex designs, problem-solving and schedules all need humans involved to execute correctly. Alternatively, what the industry needs is a dual investment in both labor and automation to boost productivity, save money and keep up with increasing demands.

Why Construction Needs to Ramp Up Hiring

When it comes to hiring skilled workers, the construction industry is in dire straits. According to statistics released by the Associated General Contractors of America, a staggering 80% of construction firms lack qualified laborers. Without enough workers to complete a job, delays and cost increases are just around the corner. As a result, construction firms need to amp up their recruitment efforts and reach new and untapped hiring markets like women and veterans.

Beyond just improving recruitment efforts on a company-wide basis, the industry as a whole needs to make serious strides in promoting the field to younger generations. A career in construction provides a wealth of benefits but without trade schools, universities and established companies publicly advocating for the field, the labor shortage will continue to get worse.

How Automation in Construction Benefits Recruitment

One major reason for the labor shortage has been from the different demographic makeup of the global workforce. Millennials have replaced the Baby Boomer generation as the largest age cohort currently employed. Generally, this new workforce is tech-savvy and focused on education. Yet most entry-level construction roles do not require any post-secondary education. Additionally, the skills most Millennials are choosing to develop don’t cross over into the conventional construction industry where manual labor is the primary mode of work.

Or do they?

Automation can actually attract younger talent. Construction companies that focus on providing laborers with a sense of accomplishment will go a lot further in hiring qualified millennials. Along with career advancement, millennials are looking for careers that offer ongoing training and innovative methods. This is exactly where automation fits the bill. By incorporating the latest types of automation from app development to 3D printing for models, construction companies can connect with millennial laborers. As Millennials and even Generation Z workers enter labor pool, some are steering away from traditional education paths and are looking for ways to gain new technical skills. If positioned correctly, providing hands-on experience with automation technologies could be key to fostering a new generation of construction workers.

By creating a tech-friendly culture that incorporates labor demands with apps, software, robotics and AI, the construction market may be able to fill the gap in employment. More importantly, this degree of advancement will help generate a safer, more productive workforce for all construction laborers.

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Humans + Robots = Superhuman Construction Workers

To get the best of both worlds with automation in construction, emphasize how these segments complement each other. First, consider this example of a complementary relationship between humans and machines in healthcare. While you mostly have heard about how IBM’s superhuman computer, Watson, destroyed its human competitors in Jeopardy, you might not have heard how it’s helping doctors. The computer’s data access capabilities can help diagnose patients based on their symptoms. From there, doctors can improve patient outcomes for their patients.

Even consider this recent example in construction. Now, a commercially available bricklaying robot, SAM, is available to work in tandem, not against, its human counterparts. The machine doesn’t actually replace the mason but increases productivity up to five-fold.

By finding ways to mesh the two types of labor, human-led and automated, the construction industry can keep up the pace. The world continues to demand construction that provides the brick-and-mortar facilities necessary for a functioning society. Automation offers a solution for completing these construction projects more efficiently. Combining automation with labor, we can do less with more, allowing construction firms to keep up with competitive construction schedules.

Productivity Transformers

As noted, automation in construction offers more than just a way to attract younger, qualified workers. In fact, the benefits of automation work your current workforce is far more immediate. On the whole, automation helps to increase productivity. Overall, increasing worker efficiency is one winning strategy to reduce the effects of the labor shortage plaguing the industry.

When you are able to streamline systematic steps in construction and replace these with a faster and more efficient way of doing things, it speeds up the process. Automation, whether you are talking about using drones to inspect jobsites or adding back-office automation to organize paperwork, does just that.

Automation in construction allows companies to reduce costs not only money but time. For instance, consider how using construction software paired with automation can streamline traditionally painstakingly slow processes like submittals.

Reducing time from weeks to minutes means your workers can reinvest their efforts into executing meaningful tasks on a job. Getting more done in a shorter time frame allows your firm to increase the number of projects completed in the long term, ramping up profits.

Mechanizing Safety

For construction companies, the limited workers that are available are an invaluable commodity. Meaning, employees health and safety should be top of mind for building firms. Automation in construction plays a huge role in creating both more efficient and safer work environments for your labor. By cutting down on the amount of time it takes to complete otherwise dull and tedious tasks, you can also improve the safety of your construction workers.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that fatal injuries are much more common in the construction industry in comparison to other industries. The greatest threats to construction workers are falling from heights, trench collapse, scaffold collapse and electric shock. These workers are also more likely to suffer from hazards caused by improper use of protective equipment and due to repetitive use injuries.

Adding automation to a construction zone has the potential to reduce these high-risk issues. For example, by adding drones to a worksite, you can conduct site surveys from the comfort of your computer screen. This eliminates the need for laborers to take on this potentially dangerous duty by allowing you to identify risks without having to put a person in the line of danger.

Reducing safety issues and increasing productivity has a natural result. When you can cut down production time and reduce workplace accidents, your workforce completes projects more efficiently and with peace of mind.

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Terminated Communication Problems

Automated systems also help laborers achieve better collaboration. A lack of communication, particularly concerning language barriers, is a huge roadblock for the construction workforce. It is also leading to an increase in workplace fatalities due to a lack of communication. Problems with communication also arise from a disconnect between managers and laborers.

Misinformation leads to accidents and costly mistakes. How can automation in construction help remedy this issue? Software, for example, allows everyone involved working on a construction project to be on the same page. Everything from plans to permits can be organized using a cloud-based system so that anyone who needs to communicate or find out information can do so promptly.

Achieving the Best of Both Worlds

The construction industry has a long journey ahead of it to adopt more automation and increase recruitment. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified skilled laborers, and technology is emerging to make construction more efficient. How can construction companies solve the laborer shortage problem? Proactive firms should focus on implementing automation in construction and hiring skilled workers capable of using this technology. This gives companies the advantages of automation while increasing their human labor pool to meet the growing demands of commercial construction.

Grace Ellis

As a Content Marketing Manager at PlanGrid, Grace is the managing editor for the PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog. With over eight years of experience in marketing, communications and PR for technology companies, she is specialized in high-quality content creation across both traditional and digital media platforms.