Can robots make a difference and reduce the skills shortage?

The use of robots is common place in many manufacturing environments. They offer great opportunities when introduced to drive up productivity but can they be used to to alleviate the skills shortage within the construction sector?

There has been a mantra of digitisation in the construction industry, particularly on the design and management side. However, increasingly bigger strides are being taken to use robot technology to speed up work and tackle the skills shortage.

The use of robotics in construction dates back to 1970s Japan. As young workers turned their back on manual labour in favour of less dangerous and physically demanding office jobs, Japan’s largest architecture, engineering and construction companies turned to automation and robotics in an attempt to stem a labour shortage.

Many of these technologies failed to break ground, and construction’s labour issue persists. According to Turner and Townsend’s 2019 International Construction Market survey, 66% of construction markets globally report a shortage of skills.

It’s not uncommon to expect to find skills shortages in hot and overheating markets and in many high-cost countries, skills shortages are a near perpetual problem, easing only when the market dips into recession. But we are also finding that in colder markets there is are persistent skills shortages.

Removing humans from dangerous tasks

Labour shortages is just one of many issues that the construction industry faces, however. However is the rewards are low and the risks are high then it becomes a less attractive career choice.  The industry seems largely in agreement that significant advancement will focus on removing humans from dangerous tasks. Automation is also likely to take over the tedious tasks, freeing up time for labourers to complete more fulfilling work.

As we don’t have enough skilled workers entering construction we have to find different and more efficient ways to construct the building we want to live and work in. The end goal is not just automating tasks that humans can do, but developing new construction manufacturing methods that are only possible through robotics because there aren’t enough humans to do the work.

Inevitably this will open up new possibilities for building design and construction.

Adrian JG Marsh

9 December 2019

Adrian is a senior strategy partner at Campbell Marsh and also contributes and edits specialist trade magazines

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