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Data & Technology

Going robotic

If the construction industry can invest in robots, then it can invest in people too.

William Waller, Market Intelligence Lead, Arcadis
27 March 2018

In 1495 Leonardo da Vinci unveiled his robotic knight. This breath-taking, innovative creation was capable of independent motion including sitting down, standing up, moving its head and lifting its own visor.

So ground-breaking was the design that it would later go on to inspire elements of NASA’s space programme, almost four hundred years later.

We, too, can learn a great deal from da Vinci’s knight and the time it took to find any meaningful purpose. History tells us that the scale and pace of technological innovations, such as robotics, can often be overestimated. 

The productivity gains robots could provide for construction are potentially massive though. The industry has a skills shortage and robots could, for example by laying bricks, do work in areas where labour supply is severely constrained. Furthermore, robotic technology could augment with the human workforce to enhance their productivity, such as use of robotic exoskeletons to assist with manual handling. 

Investment

Yet historically, the need for consistent investment at scale, an unbalanced demand pipeline and the unique nature of construction projects has frustrated such advances. These conditions create the ‘investment paradox’ in construction, where any kind of capital intensity is mitigated by the threat that things may not be fully utilised due to the nature of projects and demand cycle. 

Construction suppliers often have little confidence that they can secure full utilisation from their labour – so they expand employment cautiously. How would it be any different for robots, which will be more capital intensive and likely require higher levels of utilisation to make the numbers work?

Investment in anything, whether that be robots or people, is therefore constrained. Given the typical way work is procured and projects approached, this is perfectly reasonable. To a considerable extent, the industry has got the operating conditions that it created and deserves.  

In contrast, the evidence suggests that construction sectors where future workload is more certain are best positioned to invest more. Crossrail, with its £16bn 10-year programme, have deployed over 400 innovations, including the use of robotic concrete liners for example. Furthermore, other very cyclical industries, but where profitability is higher, still manage to invest in technology. The shale gas extraction sector works in an even more cyclical market than construction but manages to make substantial investment in high-technology and innovation, spending in excess of 5% of revenues on R&D. In contrast, construction spends less than 1% of its revenues on R&D. 

Robot-based future

Construction is unlikely to have a robot-based future unless it has a pathway to investing in all of its productive assets, based on a long-term view and the margins to allow sustained investment. There may be easier ways to raise productivity levels than by risking a huge amount of capital and time that the industry doesn’t have on robots. In the end there is no substitute for people. Even Uber, one of the most lauded technology successes, depends on the diligence and hard work of its drivers to thrive.

A recent Harvard Business School study found that halting systematic under-investment in human capital boosts productivity. The study found increased wages, education, training and increased time and space to explore innovative ideas all had an impact on productivity.

Furthermore, successful proliferation of robots will rely on people - retraining, doing different jobs and proactively maximising the productivity of the new system. Such profound industrial change, has in the past, been met with fierce opposition. The ‘Luddite uprising’ of 1811, whereby weaving machines were smashed up by weavers, is a famous example of how not to introduce innovation. 

The lessons for modern day construction are that the introduction of robots will need careful stakeholder management and that robots will open up new opportunities for everyone. After all, whilst 98% of the labour required to weave cloth was automated by machines, employment in the weaving industry in fact grew as increased demand for clothes more than offset the labour-saving automation and new skills were developed to build, install and maintain the machines.

The construction industry has seen little productivity growth for decades. Technologies like robots offer huge promise and will no doubt have a key part to play in raising sector productivity. However, implementation of such technology at scale is not straightforward. There remains a need and opportunity to invest more in people, both as a lever to boost productivity in construction and as an enabler of the proliferation of robotics.  

Until the industry has found the confidence to invest in its workforce, it won’t have confidence to invest in robots. And, a bit like da Vinci’s robotic knight, it could take a long time before robots are realising their full potential in construction.

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