The construction industry is short on human workers and ripe for a robotic takeover

08Jun17

BY

Construction is one of the least-digitized industries in the world, and its productivity is suffering.

Dan Kitwood / Getty

Construction is a $10 trillion global industry. It’s also mired by waste, severe worker shortages and weak productivity growth — all of which mean the business of building is ripe for a robotic takeover.

Productivity — the total economic output per worker — in the construction industry has remained flat, partly because of the slow adoption of new technologies across the industry.

Since 1945, productivity in manufacturing, retail and agriculture has grown 1,500 percent, while it has barely gone up in construction, according to a McKinsey report from earlier this year.

McKinsey compared U.S. industries in 27 criteria, including how much a sector spends on technology and how extensively they use computers in their operations, to create a digitization index of 1 to 100, with 100 being the most digitized.

Below we chart select industries by their digitization score and annual productivity gains.:

McKinsey Global Institute construction GDP, digitization and productivity

Understaffed

The construction industry’s technology gap may not last for very long, not only because the robots are poised to get to work but also because humans aren’t.

As of February 2017, nearly 200,000 construction jobs were left unfilled across the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition, on average, 98 percent of construction megaprojects go over budget, according to McKinsey. And in a multi-trillion dollar global industry like construction, even the slightest uptick in efficiency could amount to hundreds of millions savings, says Tristan Randall, an executive who works on drone projects at Autodesk.

Drones and robots ready to work

Work sites often span large areas, and buildings can shoot stories high into the sky. That means inspecting an entire site by foot can take days, even with a large crew.

With drones, the same information can be gathered and compiled by a single pilot in only a few hours. Companies have already started using drones to survey stockpiles and conduct site inspections.

“I was able to accurately measure the volumes of stockpiles at one of our quarries in just 10 minutes,” said John Davenport, a surveyor at Whitaker Contracting Corporation, who uses a drone system made by Kespry, a California-based drone services company. “Previously, it took me about two days of strenuous GPS work to cross-section those piles.”

Using drones for business services — like flying a robot to check inventory on a construction site or to monitor the health of crops on a farm — has an addressable market estimated at $127 billion, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers 2016 report.

More than $45 billion of that is for construction projects. Delivery by drone, by contrast, has an estimated addressable market valued significantly less at $13 billion, in part because national regulations that would permit autonomous drone delivery are still being written.

And it’s not just drones. American builders are starting to move into prefabrication, where homes and buildings are constructed on factory floors by robots. Factory-built homes are far more popular in Sweden and Japan, where 40 percent and 16 percent of residential buildings, respectively, are built with prefabrication, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Masonry is also being roboticized. Construction Robotics, a New York-based startup, has invented a bricklaying robot called the SAM100, which is already being used on job sites across the U.S. The robot is able to lay around 2,000 bricks per day, a massive increase from the 400 bricks a day an average mason can lay, according to Philip Kenney of Wilhelm Construction, a construction company that got its own SAM100 last year. That’s a 400 percent increase in productivity.

Investors take note

At Recode’s Code 2017 conference in May, famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said that his firm, Andreessen Horowitz, is actively investing in robots and that they are particularly interested in boosting productivity for the construction industry.

“I think the opportunity and the challenge for the tech industry and Silicon Valley is for us to figure out how to have a much bigger impact in the slow-growth sectors [construction, health care and education] of the economy,” Andreessen said at Code.

But boosting productivity in construction won’t be easy, Andreessen warned, largely due to strict regulations, such as land-use restrictions in urban areas.

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