Construction’s somewhat tricky relationship with technology has been put to the test in recent years, as increasing demands, ever-tightening margins and a shrinking labor pool have all squeezed the industry. Nevertheless, more firms than ever before are turning to technology to build safer, smarter and more efficiently.
As a result, we’ve seen some pretty amazing technology develop as adoption has picked up and its role in the industry has come into clearer focus, from automation to the cloud to virtual reality. This sea change has had a major impact on workers and construction as a whole.
“These new inventions have made public and private construction easier and safer. Not only are projects done faster with automation, projects are also completed with more accuracy and precision while reducing the cost–reportedly doubling output for construction firms. VR, AR, and drones in the high-risk construction industry are already reducing injuries and fatalities on jobsites but are also replacing manual labor,” noted a study by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute.
Fourth Industrial Revolution
This “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” as it’s sometimes known, inevitably raises the thorny issue of how workers will be impacted by the industry’s increasing reliance on software and methods designed in part to mimic or even replicate jobs that, until recently, only humans could do. The same report found that approximately 49 percent of all construction tasks can be automated, and that as many as 2.7 million workers could be displaced or replaced by 2057.
Nobody knows what the future holds, but if current trajectories continue it’s entirely possible that labor-intensive or repetitive construction jobs could change dramatically, particularly carpenters, laborers and operating engineers. This doesn’t mean millions of construction workers will suddenly be out of work, but it will likely require some workforce re-skilling to educate employees on how to work in tandem with automated machinery.
“While humans may control the equipment that is used to finish a project, manual labor could be less prominent in the building trades. Humans may instead be working on the maintenance of the automated technology that builds the world’s buildings, roads, and utilities systems,” the report said.
3D printers have made it faster and cheaper to construct foundations, either on-site or off, but human input is still very much necessary to turn a concrete or plastic 3D printed shell into a fully inhabitable building, through wiring, plumbing, adding windows and doors and more. PBC Today wrote that the concrete 3D printing market is expected to reach nearly $60 million by 2021. It’s another example of a machine performing the broad strokes of a job, but needing a human’s finesse and manual skill to finish it.
That said, some innovations are creating entirely new workforces, or attracting new disciplines to the trades, particularly around virtual reality, which has found a home with many firms as an invaluable training and planning tool. Creating realistic simulated environments that mimic real world conditions and physics requires skilled programmers and game developers, a promising pathway to drawing in younger workers.
Striking a Balance
Ultimately, a balance will have to be struck between technology and the human workforce. Even if the skilled labor shortage ended tomorrow, technology’s advancement into construction would continue. You can’t put a genie back in the bottle, so the truth is some displaced jobs will probably never come back. But human ingenuity and creativity will always be a valuable and necessary component of construction work. That means despite some outlying dire predictions to the contrary, the construction industry will always need people.
That’s why construction companies value their people, and prioritize worker safety as well as continued employment for its workers. Many of these technologies may seem like a looming threat to their livelihood, but in the end, they might end up making their jobs easier and safer. Technology could even have an unexpected inverse effect, creating new industries and jobs that might not even exist today.
“In construction, automation could lead to lower building and maintenance costs, higher per-worker productivity, reduced rates of human injuries and fatalities, and increased business profits. These social benefits could spur innovations in both construction and other industries that could create enough new jobs to offset the displacement,” the report says.