Robots can boost efficiency

+ Modern robots can cope with the demands of a building site and make construction more efficient

Writing here on Thoughts, my colleague Alvise Simondetti predicted that (new) robots will revolutionise the construction industry. I think he’s right and I think the principal business case arises from a combination of demands for greater efficiency borne of increasing global competition, and demographic pressures.

The efficiency of the construction industry, in stark contrast to that of manufacturing, has actually declined over the past 25 years. During that period average productivity – measured in value produced per hour worked – of industrial manufacturing has grown by 42%. But productivity in construction has fallen by 25% over the same period. Automation and robotics could reverse that trend, by bringing the consistency and efficiency that characterises the modern factory production line to the construction site. 

Furthermore, there are fewer skilled construction workers in many countries, even where the population is growing and urbanising. Japan offers a particularly stark example, where plans for the 2020 Olympic Games are being reined in, partly because of the worst labour shortage the country has experienced in 20 years. Even China is being hit – the South China Morning Post reported recently that ‘chronic labour shortages threaten Hong Kong’s infrastructure building boom’. Automation markedly reduces dependency on human labour, so robots could offer a remedy for this problem too – although there exists the clear possibility that the pendulum will swing too far and, eventually, ’humans need not apply’ (to quote CGP Grey’s short film about this issue)

To quote William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”. You can already see fully automated bricklaying machines building walls in Australia. In Sweden, façade-placing robots scale the heights of skyscrapers, and paving robots set out cobblestones in the Netherlands. But these examples don’t yet look like a force for creative destruction. However, it is in the nature of information technology to improve exponentially, so a slow start accelerates relentlessly into a maelstrom of change. 

As Bill Gates observed, we tend to over-estimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.  This will happen in construction. The current rather limited and specialised machines will evolve rapidly, becoming more dexterous, perceptive, faster, and smarter. They will start by aiding people to perform specific tasks, but will quickly become more versatile and autonomous. They will start to take decisions that are currently the province of skilled human tradesmen, supervisors, engineers and designers.  

The smart constructing machine’s ‘eyes’ – its data sources – will be distributed and its brain will be in the computing cloud. It will communicate wirelessly with its fellows, improving itself through machine learning and genetic programming.  It will demand no wages, it will not strike, and it will work around the clock. It will complement new methods of construction, such as large-scale 3D printing.

The future building robot will also never ignore or misinterpret its instructions and its progress will be communicated back to the other smart machines that carry out much of the building design. In this way both the design and the algorithms that gave rise to that design can be improved or adjusted to cope with the unforeseen. The building information model will be updated in real-time as work progresses, so the final version truly will be ‘as built’.  
So what’s stopping robots being used more widely? I think it’s two things.  

One is that the construction industry is inherently conservative. Construction firms and their staff tend to favour evolutionary change, relying on familiar tools, techniques and suppliers. Developers and other sponsors are dissuaded from demanding, or even recognising the possibility of, step change.  

The second is that the technology is not quite there yet. Although the machines are getting smarter and tougher, coping more readily with the unique and harsh conditions of building sites, they aren’t yet either versatile or cost-effective enough for most projects. But the future is accelerating towards us. 

Firms like Arup must peer into this not-so-distant horizon to spot the tipping point – the point at which smart machines for designing and building become truly capable and cost-effective. We can see a few glimpses at present, in the specialised robots that I’ve mentioned, but it won’t be long before a radically different future emerges. Now is the time to prepare.