It takes a lot of people to build things. Construction is one of the global economy’s most labour-intensive industries.
In the U.S., for example, one out of every 10 skilled workers is involved in construction.
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According to Statista.com, there are more people working in construction in China – 49 million – than there are people living in Spain.
And the construction sector has also been one of the slowest to adopt new technology to increase productivity. Construction hasn’t changed much over the last 50 years.
Every construction site requires dozens – sometimes hundreds – of workers with very specific skills… bricklayers, masons, welders, equipment engineers, drillers, painters, electricians, installers, carpenters, boilermakers and many more. Each is vital.
That means that construction is, by its nature, complicated. According to consultants KPMG, from 2012 to 2015, only 25 percent of construction projects globally came within 10 percent of their original deadlines. And only one-third of these came within 10 percent of meeting their budgets.
This is because the industry is a hodgepodge of companies of all shapes and sizes, with so many moving parts that can go wrong. Poor organisation and communication, contractual misunderstandings, subpar planning and inadequate risk management all factor into construction delays.
On top of that, there’s a growing lack of skilled workers to meet the ever-increasing number of pending projects.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the U.S., almost 200,000 construction jobs were unfilled (as of February 2017).
And in Hong Kong, a study by the Construction Industry Council states there will be a shortage of 10,000 to 15,000 skilled construction workers over the next four years or more. That’s 7.5 percent of their 200,000-strong construction workforce.
In Japan, the number of construction workers is expected to shrink from 3.4 million to just 2.2 million by 2025 due to retirement. Yet Japan is undergoing a surge in infrastructure spending growth – involving lots of construction.
So the global construction industry doesn’t have enough workers to take on new projects. Even worse, the workers they have are often sent back to old sites because of delays and unnecessary revisions. It kills productivity.
According to McKinsey & Company, the global construction industry suffers from US$1.7 trillion in lost productivity each year.
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Robots are making workers more productive – not replacing them
On the surface, simply because of the sheer number of people involved in it, construction seems like an industry that may be hit hard by robots – with robots replacing human workers (we’ve talked about the robotics revolution here and here).
But that’s far from what’s been happening in industries that have already embraced robotics.
For example, auto manufacturing has been the biggest adopter of robots, accounting for 70 percent of the nearly 2 million industrial robots currently in use around the world.
But the number of automotive workers has not changed much, even though building cars is highly automated today. The global automotive industry employs 8.4 million people, which is around the same number from a decade ago, according to the Paris-based auto trade association OICA.
And robots in factories have enabled car manufacturers to increase productivity, by 40 percent over a decade.
So robots are making workers more productive, rather than replacing them.
Robots are moving into construction
Robots in construction are now just starting to make themselves felt.
Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) companies all around the world are rushing to design and build robots that can improve the efficiency of various aspects of construction.
ETH Zurich, a university in Switzerland, has developed In Situ Fabricator1, a robot capable of laying bricks into pre-programmed structures. Equipped with AI, lasers and sensors, the robot can move around and adapt to changing situations.
Australia-based Fastbrick Robotics (Exchange: Australia; ticker: FBR) has developed a 3D robotic system designed to improve the safety, speed, accuracy, cost and waste management in bricklaying.
Hong Kong-based construction companies Gammon Construction and Chun Wo Development Holding have started using robotic machines, drone surveying, building information modelling (BIM), and 3D printing in on-site and off-site works.
Last year, Gammon also started using imported wearable exoskeletons from Japan with built-in motors designed to help workers lift heavy objects. The exoskeleton reduces back strain by helping to raise the upper body.
Meanwhile, New York-based Construction Robotics has developed a bricklaying robot called SAM100. It’s made up of a conveyor-belt, mortar pump and robotic arm.
One builder helps feed the bricks into the machine, which are picked up by the robotic arm, slathered in mortar and placed on the wall. SAM100 can place between 300 and 400 bricks an hour, compared to a human, who can only lay around 60 to 75 bricks an hour.
Demand for robots in construction will double in five years
Of the more than a quarter of a million industrial robots being sold worldwide each year, almost none are sold to the construction industry.
But that’s about to change.
With the introduction of SAM100, the In Situ Fabricator1, exoskeleton lifting suits and other revolutionary technology, the use of robots in the construction industry is set to explode.
From just US$77 million in 2018, the market for robotic construction equipment is forecast to more than double to US$166 million by 2023, according to market research company MarketsandMarkets. That’s an annual average growth of 17 percent.
By then, about 1,000 construction robots will be sold each year.
While that’s still a drop in the bucket compared with the more than 300,000-per-year industrial robotics market (US$38 billion). So it’s clearly only the beginning.
In short, construction robots will continue to be one of the fastest-growing segments of the robotics market for the foreseeable future, further keeping the foot on the gas pedal in demand for industrial robots.
Editor, Stansberry Churchouse Research
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