Tradies may soon lose their jobs to earthmoving, bricklaying, tiling and demolition robots which are already being used and will dominate the industry by 2026.
However, the smart machines will present new job opportunities to work alongside and manage the robots for workers who upskill and engage with new training opportunities.
These are the preliminary findings of the joint CSIRO-Construction Skills Queensland (CSQ) Farsight Project which is investigating how technology will transform the construction industry with the critical question: “how will the jobs change and what skills will be needed to do them?”
The Farsight Project has found that construction workers will need to upskill in order to remain employed as development in robotic technology accelerates over the next twenty years, driven partly by the phenomenal rise in prefabrication.
An article on the CSQ website makes reference to research at Oxford University which predicts that the majority of construction jobs have a 75 per cent or greater chance of being computerised.
Landscapers, concreters, welders and roofers are amongst the most at risk trades, while plumbers and electricians face less risk although will not be unaffected.
|Occupation||Probability of being computerised|
|Landscaping and groundskeeping workers||95%|
|Cement masons and concrete finishers||94%|
|Welders, cutters, solderers and brazers||94%|
|Cabinetmakers and bench carpenters||92%|
|Floor sanders and finishers||87%|
|Plasterers and stucco masons||84%|
|Insulation workers, floor, ceiling and wall||83%|
|Brickmasons and blockmasons||82%|
|Drywall and ceiling tile installers||79%|
|Floor layers, except carpet, wood and hard tiles||79%|
|Painters, construction and maintenance||75%|
|Tile and marble setters||75%|
|Construction and related workers, all other (not otherwise referenced)||71%|
|Heating, air conditioning and refrigeration mechanics and installers||65%|
|Automotive service technicians and mechanics||59%|
|Plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters||35%|
“We expect the emphasis in the construction industry to shift from skillsets focussed on manual dexterity and physical labour, to skillsets focussed on the intelligent and precise use of technology,” said the Director of Evidence and Data at CSQ, Robert Sobyra, speaking to Tools Trades Toys (TTT).
One machine that will be on construction sites soon is Hadrian, a bricklaying robot designed by Fastbrick Robotics which will be capable of building a four-bedroom home in two days.
The Western Australian-based company is almost ready to begin manufacturing their commercial prototype, Hadrian 109, according to CEO Mike Pivac, who also spoke with TTT.
“We are aiming to have that first machine on a real building site building a real home for revenue by mid-2017,” he said.
See the Hadrian Bricklaying Robot:
Bricklayers will be relieved to know that the Hadrian robot won’t mean the end of bricklaying as a profession although it will change the way they do their jobs.
“Collaboration between brickies and machines is essential. Hadrian will construct buildings very fast and accurately, but it will be a long time before a machine can do the intricate and artisanal type of work that skilled bricklayers do,” said Pivac.
Entrance porticos, fireplaces, features walls and other such elements of the bricklaying craft will still be the domain of humans.
Pivac presented the machine to bricklayers and reported that their response has been positive.
“In 100% of cases they have left as supporters of the technology and often ask me for a job or opportunity to work alongside a machine,” he said, adding that the project has the support of construction companies, builders and brick manufacturers internationally.
“The machine is designed to take the heavy, repetitious, laborious and often unsafe elements out of bricklaying,” he said.
“We see this as an opportunity for bricklayers to extend their careers in construction by decades.”
Speaking further about the preliminary findings of the Farsight Project, Sobyra stated that the risk of automation did not necessarily mean a net loss of jobs.
“Several studies have suggested that 75 per cent of current jobs in the industry are at risk but this isn’t the same as saying the construction workforce will be slashed by 75 per cent. It just means up to 75 per cent of them may be unrecognisable from today’s standpoint,” he said.
“Machines will not do the work alone. They will require humans to point them in the right direction, to at least identify the problems that need solving.”
He advised workers hoping to future-proof their jobs to become comfortable using existing technologies and be ready to learn new technologies as they become available online, adding that communication will also be a highly valued skillset in the future construction site.
Business owners taking on new employees should also keep this in mind.
“It’s not enough to find someone good with their hands. You need to be looking for people who are good with their keyboards, good with their words and always looking to learn the next new thing,” said Sobyra.
He also commented that he didn’t believe the current training systems would be suitable for the technological future.
“Continuous professional development will need to become a big feature because the technology and products will evolve too quickly to be able to rely on what is effectively a one-shot training model,” he said, referring to the apprenticeship system.
“I think there will be a much stronger role for the suppliers of technology to provide training and upskilling.”
The Farsight Project report, due to be released in mid-2016, will outline four possible scenarios regarding the future of the construction industry, according to Sobyra.
These scenarios range from a construction industry with fewer tradies and lots of robotics to an industry where the majority of jobs are still done by humans but with higher-tech gear.
“Whatever scenario ultimately prevails, one thing is almost inevitable: the workforce will become much more highly skilled and technically specialised,” said Sobyra.
“At this stage, the best advice is to be open-minded. Maintain a healthy scepticism, but don’t bury your head in the sand and pretend it will never come.”
Below are some videos of robots which are already changing construction sites around the world.
This Dutch paving robot lays brick roads like a carpet and only requires 3 workers to manage it onsite.
Brokk is a remote-controlled demolition machine that was invented in Sweden and has been available in Australia since 2000.
This industrial exoskeleton suit by Ekso Bionics takes the strain out of heavy lifting for construction workers.
SAM is a bricklaying robot from America which works onsite with a mason to build walls.