According to a 2017 survey by PwC, 37% of people are worried about automation putting jobs at risk. But with around 23% of roles in construction globally likely to be affected by high automation rates, is there really anything to worry about?
Not new and needed
Concerns about the impact of technology on the UK labour market are nothing new. Going back to the Industrial Revolution, the UK saw protests in the streets over the effects of machinery in the textile industry. But in reality, the changes had limited impact on roles and led to huge improvements in productivity.
Looking to our industry and current times, similarly, it’s projected that the increase in automation may actually cause greater investment in infrastructure and in turn, construction, meaning job gains and significantly, will likely lead to a marked increase in productivity. When you consider that the construction sector remains the least productive industry in the UK economy, at more than 20 percentage points below the average output per hour for the whole economy in 2017, this is something we desperately and urgently need to improve.
A technological evolution or revolution?
When some people think about technology in construction, initial thoughts might be of exoskeleton suits and robots. Yet the replacement of skilled bricklayers with machines isn’t something we’re going to see overnight. Instead, we can expect the role of automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to continue to penetrate and enhance our industry as it is already doing so in many places.
Within its Will robots really steal our jobs? report, PwC described three ‘waves’ that we’re likely to see in the next 10 years. Algorithm, it outlines, is the automation of simple tasks such as payments and scheduling. Augmentation covers the use of automated statistical analysis of data and human controlled UAVs – two technologies already heavily used in our industry to positive effect. Then a final wave, Autonomy, which may see the automation of labour and is more akin to the futuristic view of what technology in construction means to some.
As part of this phased approach, PwC predicts that around 15% of jobs in construction globally may be at risk of automation in the Algorithm and Augmentation waves – broadly where we are now – with a further 15% likely affected when we the third Autonomy stage.
In essence, this report and intelligent, measured thinking in our industry shows that there is no significant or immediate threat to our sector, with people simply replaced by technology and rendered useless. In reality, this is far from the case.
Yes, roles are likely to change due to the emergence of new technologies, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will disappear altogether. What’s more likely is an evolution, with jobs changing overtime to, amongst many things manage, control and complement technology.
A change in skillset and mindset
When looking at the emerging role of technology in construction, we must be aware of our language and refrain from extremes and hyperbole. As you might expect, stating we should ‘automate everything’ creates resistance from those who, naturally, are afraid of their career lifespan as a result.
Yet when we frame it as adaption and talk about how technology can complement, remove laborious manual tasks and improve worker safety, we’re likely to be met with a different response. In fact, around two-thirds of people are ready to learn new skills or re-train to remain employable in the future.
By harnessing the appetite for technology amongst digital natives and re-training and establishing continuous learning programmes with our more traditional workforce to change perceptions of technology, we can alter the skillset of our workforce for the better and at the same time, build their confidence and flexibility.
A great example of how Topcon is helping to narrow the skills gap is through Class Of Your Own (COYO). We’ve been a supporter of the initiative for many years, as we believe this is an organisation that is tackling the skills problem in ways that are having a real impact. The team has delivered its Design Engineer Construct! (DEC) learning programme in around 100 schools so far, but not alone. COYO has been training up industry experts to support the delivery of the programme, enabling them to develop their own classroom skills and have an opportunity to speak to the next generation on behalf of their business.
Technology and change in action
Within vertical construction, we have been putting these principles into practice with great success, focusing on how, as the PwC report outlines, technology can augment processes and methodology.
When building upwards there is a significant investment of time in design and planning to ensure the structure, while being built and once complete, is stable and safe, which requires project delivery teams to meticulously verify their work. Without this, misplacements and deviations are easily missed, which can have a knock-on impact on progress and of course, safety.
Verification technology exists to help with this process allowing project teams to account for and adapt to unanticipated design variations almost instantly. Yet many construction firms have needed to outsource the equipment and expertise needed to third-party scanning teams, affecting cost and meaning there can often be months between scans.
In reality, for verification technology to be powerful, it needs to be scanning constantly and with the capability to interpret and monitor these scans done by those already on-site.
Fortunately, the advent of new workflow software and technologies means that this is now a reality. With comprehensive manufacturer training, these systems are quick and easy for site engineers to use to identify out of tolerance items in near real-time.
This is a great example of how technology can augment a process, giving those on-site new skills and capabilities, as well as improving cost and job productivity.
A top down approach
While a great example of what’s possible when technology, employee training and a change in mindset come together, the benefits of verification technology are currently only being realised on a project by project basis. And this is symptomatic of a wider challenge in our industry: getting full buy in.
As Topcon Positioning Great Britain’s own research with the Institution of Civil Engineers, Breaking Barriers in Infrastructure in 2018 found, current corporate culture is one of the biggest barriers to the adoption of new technology and working processes, second only to financial implications.
At corporate level, there can be adversity to risk and a belief that change isn’t necessary. But if we are to at least catch up with other industries and finally put to bed the critical comments of the 2016 Farmer Review, our industry needs the support of everyone – not just those on the ground, or in technology or innovation departments, but those at board level too.
At present, we sit at a huge intersection in our industry. My hope is that as more businesses realise the opportunities and possibilities of technology and as more millennial digital natives move into leadership and management roles, we can build on the successes and momentum achieved at project level, becoming a whole industry that showcases the complementary nature of people power and technology, building smarter and more productively.
 Workforce of the future. The competing forces shaping 2030), PwC, 2017
 Will robots really steal our jobs? PwC 2018
 Workforce of the future. The competing forces shaping 2030), PwC, 2017