18 September 2017
The popular adage – as much as things change, they stay the same – can be applied to many facets of construction and transport, but it serves us all well to remember the impact of the first half of the statement. As we’ve especially seen in the twenty-first century, our industry is capable of absorbing game-changing innovations, subtle evolutions and massive disruptions (though not always in that order).
As we all continue to work towards solving the worker shortage, we can’t look away from another challenge that has moved beyond buzz-word status in recent years: robots.
From automation and advanced wearables to drones and self-driving vehicles, it’s much more productive to understand how technology will change construction and transport than it is to sit on the sidelines and either argue its purpose or deny its existence. By understanding it, we stand a much better chance at sharing in that evolution, and growing the industry (aka: jobs) alongside it – rather than potentially missing out on myriad opportunities because we failed to adapt.
Take construction, for example. Some marketplace experts proclaim that construction sites will be human-free by 2050. The culprits include the usual suspects: remote-controlled machinery, drones, sensor- and IoT (Internet of Things)-powered buildings with self-maintaining safety and repair internal mechanisms – to name a few.
Such a headline could easily throw a shutter into the millions of skilled workers across the country who have built, and will continue to build, America for many years to come. The trick is to read between the lines within such proverbs – and also to recognize that this country’s skilled workers belong to what is quite possibly the most resilient and adaptable workforce on the planet.
New core skills
A headline that reveals a human-free industry in a few decades – and lists technology as the reason – is also saying that existing workers will simply have to acquire new skills, in addition to the ones they have already. An ability to manage high-tech equipment and software will certainly become part of a future construction crew’s core skill sets.
As most of us know already, robots are currently in use on the jobsite. But as jobsite tech gets smarter, so, too, should its human counterparts. As Hallie Busta said in a piece for ConstructionDIVE earlier this year, technologies like machine-learning require human intervention to teach machines the nuances of construction. And by embracing innovation and new technologies, construction companies can not only make themselves future-ready, but can also meet the looming talent challenge.
Increased automation, off-site prefabrication, new collaboration tools – such advances will help to enhance productivity (and wages) as well as reduce the time spent onsite. Additionally, certain innovations that are now standard in the automotive industry – exo-skeletons, human-robot collaboration and ergonomic work processes – could benefit construction work too, making it less physically demanding and better suited to the workforce as it ages.
Over the past 10 years, the impacts of technology on the construction sector have varied by the type of construction being performed, but in general, the changes have been largely evolutionary. Today’s constructors have not come as far from the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages as today’s automakers have from the cartwrights. In the future, however, there is a high potential for significant developments that will change the basic nature of both moving and building.
It will benefit everyone involved to accept that change is inevitable, and adaptation is a move towards assuring that humans and technology will continue to merge as industries evolve – not to cancel each other out, but to collaborate in moving and building the future with the same precision we always have.