The construction industry is one industry making leaps and bounds in automation and robotics enhancing productivity and work efficiency with reduced costs, solid quality with higher accuracy than that provided by skilled workers, occupational safety enhancement for workers and better safety for the public.
Most people have an idea of what robotics looks like in their head. Some think of long assembly lines in the automobile industry where hundreds of robots fixed at certain points or along certain axes repeat the same autonomous function day in and day out. Others may think of sci-fi, futuristic movies where robots such as R2-D2, Chappie and Terminator’s T-800 live and breathe varying degrees of artificial intelligence. In the present day of automation and robotics, we are more likely somewhere in between.
While various people may be disappointed by how far we have or haven’t come, it is quite incredible to see our general progress in the last 10 years. From autonomous vehicles on the world’s roads and warehouse floors to Baxter, the general-purpose robot who learns functions by watching his operator perform them.
Sociologists and Anthropologists believe humanity is on the brink of the next industrial revolution and while our day to day lives haven’t been changed dramatically, we can no longer afford to stand on the edge theorising and fantasising about what might happen, as it is about to become our reality. This era is completely dissimilar to any other time in history. In the past, when human muscle was replaced by mechanical muscle society experienced a major shift but the main target at the forefront of this new technological development is the replacement of human minds with mechanical minds. This affects all sorts of employment from the construction site to the hospital. This should be an exciting prospect yet it does have some worrying implications.
The better robots become the less need there is for humans. With more automation, many workers may find their jobs redundant and in some cases not replaced. This is a huge socio-political issue which needs to be better understood in planning for our future. We all know that great feeling of fulfilment and achievement when we’ve completed a project or a good days work. This self-actualisation is one of the factors that drives humans and it is an important factor in their happiness, in many cases, this may be taken away when jobs are rendered obsolete. Likewise, an even greater issue could be the resultant widening economic inequality. Automation means that companies can create more wealth because more work is done in less time, but this does not necessarily mean that this wealth will be used or distributed responsibly. We need to be aware of these negative consequences of automation because if we plan and begin to address them now we might be able to minimise social disruption.
The future is, however, more positive than despairing with the changes coming due to robotics. There is massive potential for economic growth due to efficiency and productivity and the redefinition of the nature of jobs has potential to improve the standard of living for everyone. For example, shorter work weeks may be possible if machines manage to do more of our work.
Construction for a large part has been, and will temporarily continue to be, protected from the full tide of automation for a few reasons. The principal challenges facing the implementation of automation into the industry have been inadequate technology which has meant lack of general capabilities. The fact that every project comes in different sizes and shapes with different dynamics means robots will have to have the capacity to be seriously flexible to even be considered as cost effective.
That is not to say there isn’t any automation in construction, methods such as precast concrete – (which is already here in the Caribbean), show that technology is evolving. If a building section can be produced off-site and simply brought in and installed, not only can it be done cheaply but extremely quickly compared to traditional methods. More and more, we are starting to see the arrival of concepts that are simply being redesigned to be implemented in construction.
A good example is 3D printing, such as the Russian company Apis Cor who have a printer which prints a special type of concrete and can build a small house within a single day. Or Construction Robotics with their robot SAM (Semi-Automated Mason) whose sole purpose is to build brick walls based on CAD models. Neither of these can be considered intelligent machines as they still must be operated manually and require instructions but their usefulness is apparent in reducing labour cost and efficiency.
These are also early to the game, in the coming months and years we will begin to see more and more creative ideas and concepts which will continue to innovate the industry. The industry of robotics and its application to construction is worldwide and because of this, it will not be confined to developed nations. This means we could be seeing these technologies and systems here in the Caribbean as they are developed over the next decade. Our society should be aware of this coming trend so that they can position themselves to respond to a construction environment that uses less labour and more technology.
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