“Robots don’t ever go sick, they don’t take holidays and they never quibble about their terms and conditions.” It’s a phrase we hear time and again on our regular tours of manufacturing facilities throughout the UK and put like that it’s difficult to argue against the financial and operational benefits of man v machine in the modern world.
“That’s all very well in the factory environment, of course, but you will never replace the man in the hi viz on the construction site, whose practical know-how and years of experience can never be imitated by an automaton,” is our stock retort to those who hold dear everything with a chip.
Unfortunately, it seems we may even have to rethink that opinion if a recent report on a BBC website is to be taken seriously.
It presented a rather intriguing glimpse into the future of construction prophesying building sites serviced by automated drones, robotic bulldozers and 3D Printers “churning out a multitude of new structures” instead of human workers in hard hats.
Indeed, some sites in the USA are already using drones to give a birds eye view… and provide progress reports, speed up the logistics of construction deliveries and offer real time updates on any changes that may need to be made to the plans.
One can only hope that those workers deemed not to be pulling their weight are so far immune to their more, shall we say, personal attention!
In Japan, construction machinery giant Komatsu has already gone one step further by using drones to “provide the eyes for automated bulldozers” and, via computer control, allowing unmanned machinery to plot their course around sites.
At the same time, 3D Printing has come on in leaps and bounds in the past couple of years, with complete concrete buildings being produced to exact specifications every time, and with minimal human interference.
With the latest estimates suggesting that by 2030 a mind-boggling three billion people will need to be housed, this once science fiction-like process is being heralded as the solution to the world’s housing needs, cutting building time and labour costs at a stroke, whilst alleviating the problems of skills shortages which look set to blight the industry for years to come.
The article notes that for real progress to made however, the “traditionally risk adverse construction industry”, must be convinced that such change is actually necessary.
And maybe they won’t need as much persuading as we might think. A new survey by a leading supplier of Architectural Ironmongery argues that the average tradesperson is a lot more tech savvy than office workers and other non-mobile employees.
Indeed, the majority of tradespeople surveyed (85 per cent) believe that technology has improved their working life, and there was a growing clamour for more use of email, smartphones and tablets to replace paper transactions and improve efficiency.
Fortunately, they still appear to want to keep abreast of the latest products and services through the printed medium (such as the nation’s favourite building magazine) as opposed to reading news online (except on the nation’s favourite building magazine’s dedicated website)!
At least in one other very important respect, the status quo looks set to remain for some time. Further surveys from Bristan and WRAS highlight the importance customers place on domestic contractors in terms of advice and product recommendations, suggesting that a high proportion of the British public lament the fact that find it hard to secure the services of reliable trade professionals.
NAPIT, meanwhile, goes further in recognising the importance of trade knowledge.
It argues that “installers should be the central focus of future policy making” when it comes to shaping legislation geared at accelerating the low carbon retrofit of the UK’s private housing stock in the wake of the demise of the Green Deal and similar failed schemes.
It’s an intriguing debate – should builders and their ilk be at the heart of the discussion when it comes to the future of construction, or are they expensive overheads to be replaced by machines?
Is the internet going to sweep away the influence of installers as consumers get more clued up or should tradesmen be revered for their knowledge and the professional service they provide?
Ultimately, you can’t fight change but you can grow with it, recognising the threats and embracing the opportunities. In other words, when it comes to the threats posed by machines it’s clearly time to man up!