PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog
The future of construction work - automation and artificial intelligence

Preparing for the Future of Construction Work  

Why construction teams should embrace AI and automation, not fear it. 

When the topic of robots in the workforce gets brought up, it’s easy to feel a little uncomfortable. After all, we commonly hear comments like, “one day when robots are doing our jobs…” or “a machine can do that, quicker and cheaper.” 

However, the truth is far less scary than these conversations and sensationalism. Indeed, construction is rapidly moving towards its next phase of digital advancement–artificial intelligence and automation. And while it feels inevitable that certain roles will likely be replaced by machines in the near or more distant future, the benefits of embracing AI and automation outweigh the negatives.   

Unfortunately, many people are confused about the potential risks of automation and AI with the belief that we should turn our backs on it. But instead of feeling squeamish, we’re here to tell you why and how we all can prepare for the future with eyes wide open.

AI, Automation and the Future of Construction Work

Sure, many of us are nervous about anyone or anything that could take away our job security, and it’s a commonly discussed topic in our world. But while full-scale automation does mean a shift in roles in years to come, agitating about its future effect can feel overplayed.

“Forrester Research calls automation central to the next phase of digital transformation, because it’s driving value in terms of faster product delivery, better product quality and higher dependability, and more personalization and convenience,” explains Connected World. “Alongside all the excitement about automation and the future of work, however, is fear about job displacement and, occasionally, a bit of fear-mongering as well.”

Truth be told, automation in construction has way more benefits than dangers for human workers and the end users who benefit from those projects.

In this post, we’ll discuss why the future of construction work is one to which we should all look forward, and how companies and employees can start prepping today.

Why We Should Embrace Automation in Construction Today

Is your instinct still to flee automation and AI faster than Neo runs from Agent Smith in the Matrix? Don’t worry; there exists many reasons why everyone in construction should embrace automation. Among a few of the most compelling reasons to employ cutting-edge technologies are:

Safer Jobsites

Construction as an industry has its dangers due to the physical demands of the work. “As of March 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 6,882,000 people were employed in the construction industry. This is right at 4% of total employment in the United States,” summarizes MCR Safety. “Yet, they also report that the number of fatal work injuries in 2015, the latest available data, was 937 in the construction industry, which amounted to just over 21% of all worker deaths.”

Clearly, the job poses hazards that other industries just can’t match, which means that construction stakeholders have a responsibility to take every available precaution to make the job safer.

Luckily, automation and artificial intelligence open serious opportunities for improving construction safety. Among its benefits are the facts that:

  • Replace high-risk jobs: In addition to replacing routine tasks, it can replace dangerous ones as well. Increasingly, machines can replace the need for human workers in mines, on underwater jobsites or even in remote locations.
  • Reduce intensive manual labor: AI reduces intensive manual labor and thereby the risk of human mistakes and injury. While currently, robot workers are slower than humans at many tasks, they’re learning quickly.
  • Work with existing safety gear: Tech can be used in tandem with humans to improve safety, such as being integrated with existing personal protective equipment (PPE). It could, for example, help alert workers to the presence of personnel who lack PPE. Or robots can work to reduce the weight of heavy objects for human workers, enabling them to place with precision without the risk of crushing accidents.

Furthermore, machine learning is also being used to identify safety concerns faster. Some smart companies are developing technology that can see construction accidents before they happen. To assist further in the identification of accidents before they occur, “Suffolk and SmartVid created the Predictive Analytics Strategic Council this March as a way for companies to contribute data that might improve the system’s performance.” 

Other technologies, like BIM 360 Construction IQ, work to predict falls on the job, helping mitigate the event that causes nearly 40% of deaths in construction. How is this technology working so far? According to BAM Ireland, a Construction IQ user, they have “achieved a 20% reduction in quality and safety issues on site.”

Closing the Gap on the Labor Shortage

While some are busy railing about machines taking over their jobs, construction is facing a massive labor shortage, with 80% of companies reporting an inability to find needed workers. While would be great if there were people around to fill the millions of jobs that have reappeared after the recession, in the meantime, construction companies need to do what they can to keep the industry alive.

Machines, fortunately, may be able to fill in for jobs where there is a shortage. If implemented correctly, automation and robotics can help improve the efficiency of the current workforce.

For instance, human-intensive activities like excavation and prep work can be reduced with the use of robotics. Such technologies can take on tasks like operating heavy equipment and vehicles, which can keep the industry trucking (no pun intended) while the labor market catches up, helping to ensure that labor shortfalls don’t impact the bottom lines of human stakeholders and workers who do have jobs.

AI can also be used for better labor planning. In fact, automation in construction can be used to reduce large amounts of necessary but repetitive manual work. For instance, compiling a process like creating submittals logs has historically been tasked to a project team member, and it could take days and even weeks of their time to create, track and manage. But with automation tools such as PlanGrid Submittals, a log can be created in minutes and tracked seamlessly throughout the process. 

In short, technology has a number of benefits to ease the labor shortage, including: 

  • Preserving the time of human workers so that they can apply it to other, more skill-intensive tasks
  • Attracting top talent through keeping jobs interesting and challenging, ditching all that paper-monkey work that thrills no one
  • Putting construction companies on the cutting edge of technology and making them better able to compete in the long run

Resource Optimization

A project relies on a large number of resources to be successful. There’s no way to meet the demand imposed by population booms and urbanization without raw (and in some cases, reused) resources. Because construction is often mired in past standards and processes, however, it is one of the most wasteful industries on Planet Earth. But alas, automation and AI can help reduce the environmental toll of construction by optimizing critical resources to minimize waste. 

Today, more companies are integrating robotics and automation into the factories for prefabrication. Certain companies–such as Swedish construction company Lindbäcks–have been using robotics and advanced automation to “turn building construction into something more closely resembling car manufacturing.” This allows them to streamline production and minimizes waste, and is also proving to have some unexpected benefits for workers themselves: 

“The company has invested in retraining its workers to use new tools and has taken advantage of machine strength to make the workplace more equitable,” explains Architizer. “More women have moved into factory roles traditionally dominated by men as new equipment has transformed the way people work. The result of the company’s investment in its people, they say, has been a happier, more productive and ultimately more profitable workplace.”

Smarter Businesses, Smarter Projects

As IBM’s Watson has proven, machines are indeed more intelligent than us in a wide range of tasks. In many industries, this type of machine intelligence is working side by side with humans to improve decision making and productivity. 

In construction, we’re not there yet, though. “Engineering and construction is behind the curve in implementing artificial intelligence solutions,” says McKinsey, adding that “while its customers are increasingly sophisticated, it remains severely underdigitized.” This highlights an important point. Your customers will demand intelligent operations and cutting-edge results at ever-increasing rates; the firms that can’t keep up will become irrelevant.

Stanford University’s ALICE perfectly exemplifies how companies can get faster, smarter and more productive: “Starting from an initial construction plan where the early schedule and size of the project are defined by a human scheduler, ALICE uses the inputs to calculate millions of different scenarios that would require decades of work for a person to complete.” This leads to better designs with more options, fewer errors, better collaboration, less rework and more.

So, how can construction firms prepare for the future of work? Let’s explore. 

How to Prepare for the Future of Construction

Preparing for the future of construction involves an eyes-wide-open approach. That means:

  • Be Open to Change: “McKinsey research finds that companies with a strong track record of digitization are 50% more likely to generate profit from using AI,” says the stats firm. If that’s not where your company is at this moment, make an effort to start now, even small steps.
  • Look to Other Industries for Inspiration: McKinsey points out that transportation and manufacturing have a lot to teach us about the best automation and AI standards and practices. Film and fast food, believe it or not, have some seriously good advice too. 
  • Nurture Employees’ Development and Hire Right: Look to train internal employees on skills that will be needed with coming automation. After all, for AI to be successful, we’ll need to equip our workers for success. Note that the future of construction work will demand a higher level of skill as well as more frequent upgrades, so choose people who can handle the pace.
  • Double Down on Data Collection: Data is the driving ingredient for making artificial intelligence and automation a success in any business. Whether you adopt AI in the next year or a decade, it’s wise to be data-driven to improve AI’s future at your company. Check out some of the best strategies here.

The Future of Construction Work Is Almost Here: Be Ready

AI is coming, whether you like it or not. The truth is, tomorrow becomes today shockingly quickly. Don’t assume you can adopt AI and automation when it’s already here and too late to get up to speed. 

Plenty of leading companies are starting to embrace automation and AI, and if you want to remain competitive–whether as a massive firm or a boutique startup–you need the right tools to do so. Make sure leadership understands this, even if you’re the one who has to bring it to their attention. So start pursuing questions about tomorrow today, before it’s too late–and you get left behind.

Further Reading:  10 Must-Read Building and Design Articles from January 2020

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.