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

The Internet Ushers In a New Age of Building Automation

The Internet of Things (IoT) is revolutonizing building automation.

Mobile technology has taken on a critical role in building automation, but connecting products and systems within a commercial building through what is being called the Internet of Things (IoT) is pushing building automation to the next level. Within the context of the commercial real-estate market, this means using cloud-based computing and networks of data-gathering sensors that allow products within a building to communicate with each other within an interconnected system. The result? Intelligent buildings that can gather data and adapt without human input.

While implementing the latest technology solutions is a given for new construction, the real opportunity lies in intelligently retrofitting existing building stock, especially since it’s estimated that 80 percent of current commercial buildings will still be in use in 2050. It’s not too soon to get smarter about how we’re using them. We need buildings and we need cities, and the more optimized and the better performing they are, the better it is for owners, occupants, our economy and the environment.

There is already a tremendous proliferation of smart, connected devices, products with integrated sensors that input data to the internet themselves, a suite of technology and applications that equip devices and locations to generate information and then connect them all, capturing data and providing instant analysis about building performance.  The Internet of Things is going to accelerate the growth in this building automation market; by 2020, it is estimated there will be as many as 200 billion connected devices across the globe, which translates to roughly 26 smart objects per person. Many of these will be in our buildings.



The New World of Virtual Reality in Construction

Virtual building design is making a dramatic impact on the construction industry.

Okay.  You are an architect in Hong Kong, and you’re working with a construction company in San Francisco. You can both “look around” a computerized 3D model of your building (this is not new technology) but now you can also actually feel what it’s like to be right inside the structure by wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets, getting a 360-degree view. And, by wearing the same headsets, you can do this together and make real time changes even if you’re on opposite sides of the world.

Welcome to the world of virtual building design – a big leap for the construction industry, which has traditionally been more interested in bricks than clicks.

Building information modeling (BIM) – or developing a 3D digital prototype of a project – has been trending.  Using 3D gaming technology and cloud-based software, industry leaders are now bringing together building design environments and workflows into a single, navigable view. Users navigate these virtual designs almost like a video game.

The opportunity for reducing errors, keeping tabs on and tracking large complex projects while also saving money (30% of a project’s total budget is usually spent correcting errors not visible in the design stage) are the obvious benefits of this VR computer-aided design. It’s definitely disruptive technology, and it’s spawning new, streamlined building design practices that will change the nature of construction forever.

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”!

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!

Construction Industry Slow to Adopt New Technologies

According to a new report, construction firms are missing the boat in failing to adopt new technologies. Photo Credit: Construction Dive

According to consulting firm KPMG’s Global Construction Survey, the vast majority of construction industry companies are failing to adopt new technologies now available to improve workflow management and building performance monitoring – including advanced data and analytics, automation and robotics. While project-related risks seem to be increasing, only a small percentage of construction and engineering firms are re-thinking their business models to take advantage of new technologies that could mitigate these uncertainties.

Research indicates that even though the construction industry is well-positioned for technological disruption, most firms don’t want to be first-adopters, even though there is an opportunity to use high-tech innovation to streamline work flows, improve data collection, integrate project management information systems, and gain competitive advantage by using whiz-bang devices such as smart sensors and drones. Cost and scale, perceived as risk in relation to benefits, seem to be hindering investments in the new-new things.

With so few firms adopting tech innovations (only 8% fall into the “cutting edge visionary” category according to the KMPG survey) it would seem there is tremendous opportunity for a few fearless leaders to gain market share and improve the bottom line by embracing the new tech-savvy innovations.