Get ready for the robot revolution
As you’d expect, SELECT is taking a keen interest in the technology of tomorrow, including the benefits that robotics could bring to construction. Here, our expert guest Matthew Paton, Associate Impact Manager, Built Environment – Smarter Transformation(BE-ST), outlines the potential impact from a traditional skills perspective
“Will robots take my job?” is a question often asked by those working in traditional skills and particularly by those in construction.
This question is provocative and simplistic but is important when considering robotic innovation from the perspective of a traditional skills workforce. We need to consider the implications of the digital future for those it will affect the most.
In this article, I don’t intend to answer whether robots are “good” or “bad”, or even whether human workers should or should not be replaced by robots. Instead, I’ll share the thoughts and concerns of those who don’t usually get a voice in this discussion – traditional skill and trade workers.
The future role of human workers
Throughout 2022, BE-ST undertook a series of workshops with representatives of this critical but overlooked group.
The workshops asked the questions “Are robots going to replace humans,” “Is there fear in the industry?” and “What does this mean for technological progress?”. We also asked, “How can we proactively harness the potential of a human-centric site of the future?”
We believe human workers have an important role in the future of the built environment, but with increasing demand for quality and productivity, how can gains continue?
Bringing diverse industry representation together means we gained insights from those on the ground, decision makers, SMEs and Tier 1s and gave an analogue industry a voice in the digital future.
What we heard
We heard perspectives focused on the strength capabilities of robots, the accuracy in operation and the efficiencies gained by deployment. There were negative preconceptions, including the inherent cost of equipment and perceived limitations of ability. But overall, it was a surprisingly positive reflection on what robots are today.
There was a lack of awareness of potential and the use cases in industry. This led to perceptions that a robot is highly specialised equipment which would require specialist fabrication, procurement and maintenance. The perceived cost of this as a barrier was workshopped and most agreed that early adopters must be supported when taking the leap.
Misconceptions were common. Unsurprisingly, since one of the strongest media narratives is that robots in construction = bricklaying robots, which supposedly lay bricks faster and better than people. This is understandably interpreted as an attack on jobs and highlights the importance of considered messaging. If we aim for widespread adoption and industry buy-in of automated systems, then we must change our approach to the dissemination of ideas.
It was also clear throughout conversations that the culture in industry needed to change; inviting an openness to innovation. Wider culture change is already creeping in. Most of the younger participants taking part were digital natives and therefore accepting and understanding of technology generally. They were quicker to grasp potential opportunities and accept innovative ideas. An open approach was proven to enable concerns to be addressed almost every time.
So what does industry want from robots?
The answers to this question are wide-ranging, but the key areas are:
Robots directly supporting or augmenting the worker: Holding or stabilising tools, increasing lift capacity or reach, or enabling the human worker to work faster or more efficiently.
Increased productivity: The largest gains involved tackling no-value-add tasks. These include logistics, movement of plant material and equipment.
New ways of working: Accepting that robots do jobs well and humans do jobs well means we can create new workflows that make the most of everyone’s skills.
Improved health and safety: Construction has one of the highest death and long-term injury rates. Improving safety must be one of the industry’s top priorities and will be a major influence on acceptance.
Training and skillsets: Utilising existing skillsets in other capacities is a very real option. A skilled robotic technician and a skilled tradesperson share many skills and much can be transferred when deploying a robotic solution.
Addressing the skills shortage: Deploying robots will help to bridge the labour gap, meaning a skilled craftsperson is freed up from repetitive work and utilised to their full potential on specialist jobs.
Giving everyone a seat at the table
Led by Alan Wilson, SELECT has been proactively horizon scanning and identifying future industry trends, while other trade bodies have hidden their heads in the sand or even fought against progress.
Being proactive in the discussion means getting a seat at the table. And, for SELECT, it means driving the narrative, lobbying for Members and creating a future where robots and humans coexist. The dominant feeling was that, if used to augment a workforce and increase productivity, robots on site should be deployed to make things faster and safer. Carrying heavy loads or traversing a dangerous site are tasks that no one will miss if completed by an autonomous worker.
So, will robots take my job? This was the mindset of many who took part in our workshops because they had been told that the future didn’t include them.
If you don’t value someone’s opinion enough to bring them to the table, then of course they will be angry, afraid and resentful of change. What was amazing though, was once asked, there was great enthusiasm for coming up with ideas, solutions and designing for the future that successfully included both robots and humans.
Find out more about the work BE-ST has been doing with construction robotics and built environment innovation at www.BE-ST.build