Construction Industry Labor Shortages and the Rise of Robots

The In-situ Fabricator is an autonomous construction robot capable of laying bricks into pre-programmed structures. Can robots mitigate the labor shortage crisis in the construction industry?

Automation has long been considered the harbinger of future unemployment, and experts have in fact predicted that the widespread adoption of robotics and other technological advancements — artificially intelligent (AI) software and smart machines — could lead to millions of people losing their jobs. Many tasks in transportation, manufacturing, even insurance, law and taxation are already being taken over by machines.

Increased automation is expected to dramatically disrupt worldwide employment as early as 2020, but in the construction industry, which suffered massive job losses in the Great Recession,  automation could help mitigate the impact of current labor shortages and improve efficiency.

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the construction sector lost more than 2.3 million workers (40% of the workforce) between April 2006 and January 2011. The share of builders reporting serious labor shortages skyrocketed from 21% in 2012, to 46% in 2014, 52% in 2015, 56% in 2016 according to Construction Dive. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that almost 200,000 construction jobs were unfilled in the United States as of February 2017.

Can an industry plagued by labor shortages get help from automated systems and machines? A number of AI-powered systems that could help alleviate the construction industry’s woes are currently in development. These include a mobile construction fabricator as well as a 3D-printer for buildings, both of which are capable of adapting to their immediate environment. And equipment giant Caterpillar has just invested $2 million in Fastbrick Robotics to develop and sell the Australian company’s robotic bricklaying technology. These construction systems are typically able to finish their tasks more efficiently and quickly than their human counterparts, so construction companies may benefit from certain  automated systems.

Some critics are wary of intelligent automation because they view it as an attempt to shut out and replace human workers. But in an industry that is already suffering from a lack of skilled labor,  intelligent automation is making inroads. In the race between man and machine, the pace is now quickening


Tallest Tower West of Chicago Topped Off in San Francisco

The 1,070-foot-tall, $1.1 billion Salesforce Tower in San Francisco will be the tallest skyscraper west of Chicago.

The 1,070-foot-tall, $1.1 billion Salesforce Tower was topped off in San Francisco last month making it the tallest skyscraper in the West, eclipsing the city’s Transamerica Pyramid. It also tops the charts as the most expensive building ever constructed in this City-by-the-Bay “with little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars…”Salesforce, the enterprise giant, will pay close to $560 million over 15 years for the naming rights in this landmark  real estate transaction.

The 62-story, 1.4-million-square-foot building, includes access to the new Transbay Transit Center which will connect 8 Bay Area counties through 11 transit systems. The tower features 13-foot-high ceilings, 10-foot glass panels and metal sun shades at each floor to help regulate the building’s temperature and lighting. Builders are aiming for LEED Platinum certification with sustainable features that include high-efficiency air handlers for increased natural ventilation, under-floor air distribution, and a sophisticated water recycling system.   salesforce-and-its-billionaire-ceo-marc-benioff-are-riding-high-these-days-1

So far, the skyscraper is 70% leased; Salesforce has taken the bottom 30 and top two floors; Bain & Company and Accenture are other tenants. The estimated completion date is late 2017. The signature project was developed by Boston Properties and Hines and is being managed by Clark Construction; the architects are Pelli Clarke Pelli.


A Useful Primer on Construction Drones

Construction drones are one of the biggest trends in the industry today and now there's a primer that makes this new technology more accessible.

Not that you haven’t already heard a lot about drones, on this blog site as well as elsewhere, but Construction Dive just published a handy comprehensive primer on the use of drones in the construction industry. Their series of articles covers all the critical issues that can mitigate the fear of flying: from getting licensed to analyzing aerial imagery data. It also addresses top trends influencing drone use on the jobsite and tips from drone pros on running a drone business. The FAA regulations and new rules that are impacting UAV use in construction are also covered to insure contractors have a smooth take-off and landing with their new aerial robots.

The FAA expects commercial drone usage to expand 10-fold in the next 5 years, so it behooves leaders in the construction industry to stay on the cutting edge of this new technology trend.


FAA Eases Drone Regulations for Construction Use

New rules better enable the use of drones in construction to save time and money

We have been reading a lot about how drones — also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles  (UAVs) – are being adopted by the construction industry to save time and money. Mapping a construction site with a drone can be done in minutes, whereas it could take a team six weeks to map the same site; drones with imaging technologies can produce detailed images, vastly improving efficiency and accuracy.

And now, the FAA has streamlined the licensing, rules and regulations for the use of commercial drones, further reducing the barrier to entry in this emerging field.  Exemptions to operate are no longer required nor is the previous petition process, and commercial drone operators no longer need a commercial pilot’s license to fly their eye in the sky.

The FAA’s new rules open up the industry to drone flights for surveying, project management and analysis, safety monitoring and inspection, and even materials transfer. With the regulation of this new industry continually evolving, the FAA now predicts that there will be more than 7 million drones of all types flying by 2020, indicating that “the sky’s the limit”!


Lessons Learned: Stricter Building Codes Minimize Damage from Hurricanes

Thanks to stricter Florida building codes, much of the damage from Hurricane Matthew was limited to downed trees, damaged signs and piers and beach erosion. PHOTO: time.com

In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew earlier this month, it appeared that structures built in South Florida in the last decade weathered the storm far better than years past due to stricter codes and lessons learned from the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. A category 5 hurricane, Andrew, leveled more than 125,000 homes in Florida, leaving 250,000 people homeless in south Miami-Dade County.

Authorities in Florida reported that the level of structural damage from Matthew was significantly less than in previous hurricanes, and they attribute this to a single-state controlled Florida Building Code that took the place of local municipal building codes. The stricter code, which was enacted shortly after Andrew, requires that new or renovated homes in hurricane-prone coastal areas must be able to withstand three-second gusts of 160 mph winds, and sustained wind speeds of 124 mph. Exterior impact protection — such as shatter-resistant windows, hurricane shutters and reinforced doors — is now required for new construction as well.

Hurricane disaster preparedness can take many forms, and clearly better building codes have helped minimize the potential destruction.


How Virtual Reality is Revolutionizing Design

Virtual and augmented reality are dramatically changing and enhancing architectural and construction practices.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) may have originated in the video game studio but these technologies are now taking the AEC industry by storm presenting huge new opportunities to improve design-phase outcomes by leveraging real time data to make more informed decisions. The result? Safer projects with higher quality and significant cost savings.

VR and AR are redefining traditional design/build processes by enabling greater collaboration and eliminating costs across the construction lifecycle. They offer far more design and construction planning flexibility; changes can be made quickly and augmented reality can provide safety, training and real-time installation guidance to jobsite crews.

In what is truly a revolutionary democratization of the design process, VR and AR allow non-design professionals and stakeholders to conceptualize and provide critical feedback on a project, without having to understand or translate 2-D blueprints or static renderings. This “immersive review” as it’s being called is evolving as a new benchmark in the design process. California software developer Autodesk has leveraged their gaming VR expertise to develop VR applications for the AEC industry and report that designers think it’s the “best tool” they’ve used in decades. It’s a whole new way to visualize design and construction.

Minneapolis-based firm Mortenson has created an entire reality-capture division numbering 60 people. This “Integrated Delivery Advancement Team” delivers directly applied uses of virtual design and construction systems, tools and processes. They claim their virtual project review translates into real world savings. Mortenson’s use of VR for the Penn State Pegula Ice Arena in University Park, Pennsylvania resulted in $475,000 in direct savings. An even bigger VR coup for the firm was $1.7 million in lower costs at the Atlanta Braves SunTrust Park.

The reality today? It’s virtual and it’s augmented and the construction and design world will never be the same. Game on!