Is The Construction Industry Ready For a Robot Revolution?

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Robison Wells
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As I was reading the news this week I was intrigued to find two headlines that completely contradict each other. The first: “The Construction Industry is Short on Human Workers and Ripe For a Robotic Takeover,” and the second, “Why the Construction Industry May Be Robot-Proof.”

The latter article laments various robotic take-overs, including one that made me laugh: “Last week, I had an uninspiring lunch at a largely automated quinoa joint in Manhattan.” It there was ever a New York headline, that’s it.

So what evidence does he (Daniel Gross, from Strategy+Business) point to to show that construction is untouchable? He first gives anecdotal evidence by saying that remodeling builders are slow and lazy, but then gets into numbers:

“’There is a higher number of housing starts per construction worker in Japan, especially since 2006.’ (In the U.S., it is about .17 starts per construction worker , and in Japan it is closer to .25.) ‘Another way of putting this,’ Klein [of the Financial Times] writes, ‘is that America built the same number of of housing units in 2016 as it did in 1992, but somehow required 46 percent more people to do it.’ By contrast, Japan built 31% percent fewer houses in that timeframe, but the construction workforce in Japan fell by nearly 20%.”

The Financial Times goes on to say “half-century through 2012, annual labor productivity growth in the US construction sector averaged close to zero, and it has been negative for the past two decades.”

With all of these productivity problems, wouldn’t the industry be ripe for technological intervention?

Yes, according to an article in Recode. There is a huge worker shortage (which we’ve written about here extensively), and with 200,000 job openings, a company that could augment a worker’s productivity from eight man-hours of productivity per day into sixteen—or more—could break the industry wide open.

Already, drones and robots are ready to take on some work. “Inspecting an entire site by foot can take days even with a large crew. With drones, the information can be gathered and compiled by a single pilot in only a few hours.”

“I was able to accurately measure the volumes of stockpiles at one of our quarries in just ten minutes,” said John Davenport, a surveyor at Whitaker Contracting Corporation. “Previously, it took me about two days of strenuous GPS work to cross-section those piles.

And it’s not just drones. We’ve already written on this blog about a brick laying robot called the SAM100. And many American builders are moving to pre-fabrication, where, foreseeably, walls, trusses, floors and stairs can be built in auto-factory-esque production lines.

Not so says Daniel Gross. “It is hard to achieve economies of scale—or to automate processes—when every job, or close to every job, is unique. . . To be sure, there are plenty of planned developments and apartment buildings built in the United States. But even here there is great variation from project to project, and within projects.”

Gross goes on to say that automotive-style production lines can’t work, because they can’t control the environment in which they’re working: you can’t disturb neighbors, you have to worry about weather.

In the opinion of Power Tools, however, this is short-sighted. There’s no reason why prefabrication needs to take place at the job site. In fact, that’s the glory of prefabrication. Even ten years ago, wood companies, such as Weyerhaeuser, were experimenting with plugging a builder’s plans into their computers, and then feeding floor and roof joists into a saw that could cut pieces to lengths within 1/16”—at an automated saw at the lumberyard. The cut wood—joists, dimensional lumber, sheathing—could be shipped to a work site with a simple numbered diagram: Joist #1 goes here, joist #2 goes there.

Ultimately Daniel Gross says that things won’t change because there isn’t the willpower. His closing argument is that “Despite the complaints about worker shortages and lack of productivity growth, the National Association of Home Builders sentiment index is near a record high.”

To me, it sounds like there is a wide-open business opportunity, with billions of dollars up for grabs. Robots are coming. Get ready.

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