A stronger case for robots in construction

A fundamental issue and barrier to adoption of automation in the industry is that construction is often not treated as a manufacturing business.

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The ongoing health and economic crises will determine the future manpower and automation strategies of companies as health risks, social distancing and travel restrictions make it diffi cult for them to utilise the full potential of their staff , both blue- and white-collar workers.

Any crisis is also an opportunity to test and adopt new technology. The COVID-19 pandemic is already being credited as a big driver of digital transformation of companies, and this is not limited to e-commerce and
video conferencing.

Autonomous robots are being deployed in every large industry including manufacturing, healthcare, retail, food service, retail, hospitality, logistics and so forth where they working side by side with doctors and nurses, waiters, sales and maintenance staff to assist them with tasks such as delivery, cleaning and customer interaction.

The same cannot be said about the construction industry where complacent developers and contractors seem satisfied with tools and processes that were developed decades ago.

Stuart Maggs, CEO of Spain-based Scaled Robotics, explains that the construction industry’s productivity has fl at-lined over the past 50 years whilst other manufacturing industries have almost doubled. This is not surprising given that there has been little to no development in on-site construction tools. The root cause of this problem, according to Maggs, is that while we are designing digitally, we are constructing manually. No matter how good a digital model may be, the final result is dependent on people at the construction site and how well they do their jobs. The majority of construction site managers don’t have accurate tools to compare a built structure to
the digital model in real time. 

Another fundamental issue and barrier to adoption of automation in the industry is that construction is often not treated as a manufacturing business. Industries such as automotive, electronics, food and beverages, etc., have end-to-end control of their manufacturing processes because a lot of their processes are automated with robots.

Given the construction environment is more complex than industrial environments and would require robots with more advanced perception of space and accuracy of movement, what would be the impact of automating construction processes using them? It would certainly improve safety and productivity and minimise human error and construction costs.

Automated Connected & Immersive: The Future Of Construction Management

However, automation is also negatively associated with job loss. While autonomous robots are attractive in places with shortage of labour, there’s usually no need or incentive to invest in them in regions such as the Middle East where cheap manual labour is abundant.

Do we risk waiting for inevitable situations where human labour becomes expensive and not easily available? Should we continue worrying about jobs that are going to be obsolete anyway? Autonomous robots will create new jobs while replacing older ones. A new set of skills is required to manage and maintain autonomous robots, which will create new training and employment opportunities in the industry. Construction labourers working
with robots will need to have collaborative and communication skills and a basic understanding of data interpretation.

Sceptics may argue: what if the technology and machines we so highly depend on today fail us someday and we’d need to fall back on manual labour? The logical answer would be not to put all eggs in one basket. As global manufacturers reassess their supply chain dependence on China and seek alternative, multiple production hubs, it’s also necessary for construction businesses to evaluate all options to minimise future risks.

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PMV Middle East - July 2020

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