As another Construction Safety Week is ticked on the calendar you might think the average construction site has not changed much in decades, and therefore almost time ambivalent. That observation might hold up on first sight of scaffolding, manual bricklaying and concrete mixing trucks but dig a bit deeper and time is catching up on construction. Fast.
Deadlines were always a part of the $12 trillion global AEC industry (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) but the recent emergence of skilled labour shortages is not just threatening completion dates but also exposing an industry overly dependent on human fixes. McKinsey research confirmed the suspicion of construction as an ‘innovation-free zone’ when its analysis in 2017 showed the sector had averaged labour productivity growth of just 1% a year over the previous twenty years compared to 2.8% for the global economy, and 3.6% for the manufacturing sector. Something had to give. And, that was investment…..in technology.
Investment in AEC tech amounted to $50 billion in the years 2020 to 2022(Source: McKinsey). That’s an 85% increase on the previous 3 year period which followed the original McKinsey productivity report. Technology is becoming a game-changer in how construction is done, and how critical risks to worker safety can be dramatically reduced. If one considers how the manufacturing sector has upped its game on productivity thanks to digitization, the construction sector always struggled to apply digital solutions to a fragmented market with huge levels of customization (materials, tool preferences, geographies etc). Now, all those variables can be digitized thanks to 3D printing technology. In fact, Dubai has announced that 25% of all construction projects will use 3D printing by 2030. This ambitious target also includes project costs being reduced by 50%, alongside labour costs cratering by up to 80%. Clearly, this all-in-one solution has a dramatic labour dependency(and safety) impact but there are there other technologies developing which will change roles rather than replace them completely.
One in five worker deaths in the USA are in construction. And, 34% of those fatalities involve falls from heights. Working at height is a necessity on many projects but, again, tech can help. Drones are not just transforming the battlefields of Ukraine. They are gaining real traction in the construction industry as they can be used to inspect difficult-to-reach positions on worksites, minimising the need for workers to access dangerous locations. Also, these remote-controlled ‘eyes in the sky’ are identifying potentially hazardous situations on sites before they become accidents. The use of drones for security is an added safety benefit and the overall cost savings could be significant. Indeed, PWC in their 2021 research estimated cost savings in the UK manufacturing and construction sectors alone of £1.6 billion by 2030, and a GDP uplift of £2.8 billion. Of course, these drones will need experienced human eyes and operators to deliver these benefits and should be considered productivity tools rather than human replacements.
While we should keep our drone expectations grounded, there is no doubt robotic systems on the ground are definitely going to become a more visible feature on construction worksites. The global construction robotics market was valued at just over $1 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate(CAGR) of 17.5% in the years 2023 to 2030(Source: Grand View Research). The following four companies appear to be leading the charge:
Construction Robotics: Its SAM100 machine that automates masonry work, completes the work of six skilled masons. The effectiveness of the machine has led to a 50% reduction in work costs and doubled the speed of building. It also provides MULE that lifts materials up to 135kg and can be fixed to a robot and operate in hazardous environments.
Fastbrick Robotics: Leverages innovative technology to automate bricklaying processes. The company’s bricklaying robot can lay up to 1,000 bricks per hour, equivalent to three masons. This means that a brick wall can be built within a few hours, a task which would take days if done manually.
Advanced Construction Robotics: Its key product is TyBot, a rebar-tying robot that fastens rebar on big building projects for bridges, tunnels, and more. Tybot helps reduce the time it takes for workers to tie rebar by about 8 times and cut workers’ time in hazardous areas by up to 70%.
EksoWorks: Company designs industrial exoskeletons to provide increased support for workers performing manual tasks such as lifting or drilling. This technology helps workers to maintain full range of motion whilst minimizing physical stress, resulting in fewer injuries, improved efficiency and decreased worker compensation.
All of the above look set to transform costs, speed and safety. Also, as an asset heavy industry, construction might seem to be a natural fit with technology hardware. However, there is a real opportunity for a massive leap forward in the integration of digital/software intelligence(AI) and hardware. The connectivity of the internet and the data-gathering abilities of all hardware through IoT sensors(‘Internet of Things’) opens up new ways to pair hardware with high ROI insights. In particular, we can see four key benefits from better project intelligence:
- Optimize equipment usage and work schedules
- Model best practices and education using predictive AI
- Monitor worksites and mitigate risk by identifying hazards and unsafe practices
- Use AI insights and predictive abilities to reduce waste
This is the ‘holy grail’ for heavy industries like construction; connecting hi-tech equipment with advanced analytical power to boost worker productivity and safety. As a final observation, there is a genuine probability that workers’ mental health will also benefit from this investment in making work better and safer. It feels like there are lots of technology safety wins to come and it will be super-interesting to see what the Construction Safety Week will be celebrating or printing in 2030!