Will Robots really take our construction jobs?

Posted over 3 years Ago

Robot sitting on box

Technology is all fun and games until it takes our jobs from right under our noses and there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it. The invasion of machines was once thought to be so far out that most of us never thought it would happen in our life time. While a complete takeover; a doomsday scenario where humankind is annihilated by their own creations is still confined to science fiction, the same cannot be said about the safety of our jobs.

The human race has been bricklaying for almost 6000 years now. This practice dates back to ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians in construction of the pyramids. But it is the Roman Empire that is credited with spreading masonry to most parts of Europe. Bricklaying and masonry picked up in the seventeenth century due to the demand for huge cathedrals. However, it wasn’t until the great fire in London in 1666 that bricklaying regained its place in English construction. Fast-forward to today.

The latest machine, SAM, they call it. This is a Semi-Automated Mason that has the ability to do the work of six humans on their best day. Sam was created by a New York based company, Construction Robotics. After a series of successful field tests, SAM is finally ready and has already been spotted in action is some construction sites in the U.S and Britain is next.

There is already talks with the developers to bring this technology to Britain in the next couple of months. Automation in the Construction industry has been slow paced as compared to its peers such as manufacturing. This is largely attributed to the complex dynamics of a construction sites. Before Sam, there were several other notable entrants into the construction industry that most people probably missed. An example is a bricklaying robot that was unveiled in Zurich by Swiss Federal institute of Technology back in 2015 but never made it to mass production. There was also a 3D concrete printer by Eindhoven Institute of Technology. You could say that it was only a matter of time before significant breakthrough was made.

A huge amount of workers could be set to lose their jobs across the globe since Sam is more efficient and can manage an impressive 3,000 bricks in a single day. It features a robotic arm, a conveyer belt and a concrete pump. It sprays the bricks with concrete from a nozzle before laying them in place. Not even the best mason alive can rival Sam’s productivity and it is easy to see the benefits. With Sam, you don’t have to worry about breaks that contribute to delays. It lifts more and the best part is that there are no unions to worry about.

At the risk of sounding like am rooting for the machines, any self-respecting businessman can crunch the numbers and the numbers make sense. The aim of any business is to minimise cost while maximising profits. Some of the unnecessary overheads are automatically eliminated from the balance sheet.

However, it is not all doom and gloom though. Technology is here and will only get better in the next few decades. For those who have been bricklaying all their lives, it is obviously too late for you to switch tracks. The silver lining is that most forms of technology still require human supervision at some level. For instance, Sam requires at least two bricklayers to help it. One loads the machine with a steady feed of brick and motor, while the other follows closely behind, clearing excess mortar from the joints. The corners still require human touch owing to their delicate nature. However, for the younger generation, it makes sense to either move up the ladder or switch. According to conservative estimates from World Economic Forum, about 5 million people will have lost their jobs due to automation by the year 2020.

Human beings have gone through a technological revolution before and come out the other end being better. This was witnessed during the industrial revolution. In the same way cranes replaced dockworkers and created better jobs for engineers, construction automation will create jobs for programmers, software engineers and data analysts. Things will settle eventually. The old must go out to give way to the new. It would be criminal to overlook the immediate risk of job loss that this new technology presents but at the same time change is inevitable.

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