Jobless construction projects

Yesterday’s post re the Jobless Economy triggered multiple thoughtful responses, including one from a colleague noting construction may be somewhat insulated from automation.

I did some quick research, and here’s what I found.

Briefly, it looks like we will see more and more construction automation using 3D printing in the near future, especially for small projects (think small houses) and components of larger buildings and structures.

One Chinese company built 10 single-family dwellings in a day using 3D printing. More recently, they built a five story apartment building and large villa using a 3D printer that measures 6.6 meters in height, 10 meters in width, and 150 meters in length. This is China, where labor costs are a small fraction of what they are here in the US…

A company in Holland is building a pedestrian bridge using six-axis robots.

In Chicago, a machine built a mini-tower out of gravel and thread.

And here’s a luxury hotel in the Philippines built in large part by 3D printing.

But construction automation is by no means limited to 3D printing.  Drones, automated construction equipment and vehicles,

Here’s a video of drones building tall structures out of bricks.

Komatsu is investing heavily in automated heavy equipment, what some might call “ground-based drones”.

A big player in this business is Skycatch, a U.S.-based company that allows for precise mapping of construction sites and integration with automated equipment.

And here’s your construction project of the future…workers operating computer pads and joysticks, not hefting shovels and hammers.

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Here’s a very good detailed discussion of construction automation – required reading for work comp underwriters, construction defect insurers, GL writers.

So, what does this all mean?

6.7 million people were employed in construction jobs in November, 2016. If Congress approves a new infrastructure investment initiative, we can expect to see that go up significantly.

We will also see construction companies dramatically ramp up their investments in construction automation, robotics, drones, and automated vehicles.

What does this mean for you?

As with all automation, we’re going to see:

  • much higher productivity per worker
  • fewer workers
  • much less opportunity for low-skilled workers
  • much more opportunity for high-skilled workers
  • a much safer workplace.

8 thoughts on “Jobless construction projects

  1. While that sounds good, the fact remains that much construction will be done by humans. Wiring buildings for electricity, laying and running pipes for water, installing light fixtures, electrical and data and phone outlets, drywall work, painting and all the myriad subcontracted work won’t soon go away.

  2. This is probably going to be our greatest challenge in the next 2-3 decades; what to do with all the folks that will no longer have jobs. Of course its never what you see coming that ‘does you in’, its always something else no one ever thought would happen. As the bard put it; may you live in interesting times.

  3. Good post. I find the advancement of computer technology and automation fascinating.
    Anheuser-Busch inbev has already completed a delivery of their product using a driverless truck in Colorado. The world is rapidly changing and it is certainly fun to watch.

  4. Outsourcing is an economic phonomena that has already run its course… Outsourcing isn’t responsible for what happened to garbage truck workers, telephone operators, toll booth workers, travel agents, marketers, salespeople, publishers, and music industry folks who lost their jobs over the last 20 years. Technology is the culprit…and that is NOT necessarily a bad thing. The jobs lost to technology in the last 20-years have been relatively easy to replace…the next 20-years may be very different.

    Automation fueled by ‘learning’ artificial intelligence algorithms are quickly emerging as a REAL and exponentially accelerating job disrupting force. What is happening now is that higher paying jobs like truck drivers, construction workers, healthcare profesionals, and yes; even attorneys are being targeted. Exponential changes of this kind can be difficult to accept as being credible until it is too late. These MCM posts are akin to someone pulling a fire alarm. Yes, there really is smoke outside…

    Now, more than EVER, we need some out-of-the-box thinking in terms of how to effectively shift from an economic system based on the distribution of human labor to a system where machines are doing much of the work. This is NOT going to be an easy problem to solve.

    Perhaps the WC industry can benefit by expanding coverage for BOTH injury and technological job displacement for employers who are simply trying to compete in a quickly changing world? Just throwin’ something out of the box…

    Discuss among yourselves 🙂

  5. Joe, I enjoyed discussing this topic in New Orleans recently, (while you were proving you were a man of your word and making good on our election wager – thanks for the drink). As you know I share the same concerns over automation and a displaced workforce; however I did see a short article recently offering a contrarian view. It is located at http://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/12/automation-may-increase-number-of-well-paying-jobs-expert-says.html. I am not making judgement either way on this article or this persons views, but thought it was an interesting view to throw into the mix (recognizing he is referencing high paying jobs – even if he is correct that still means big issues for a large swath of people). The truth is that all prognostication on the future is simply that – until of course it happens. Or it doesn’t. I won’t make a wager on this one.

    • Bob – always good to have a cocktail with you, especially when I have to drown my sorrows…

      We certainly can’t predict the future, but we have to prepare for what we think may be coming. We’ve seen the impact of automation in manufacturing – far fewer workers making 5 time as much stuff. It’s pretty likely we will see automation in lots of areas; the economics are just too compelling.

      I absolutely agree there will be big issues for many, many people.

      • This morning, I listened to a TED Talk both of you would find interesting http://www.ted.com/talks/kevin_kelly_how_ai_can_bring_on_a_second_industrial_revolution

        Mr. Kelly posits that the Industrial Revolution was really about electrical power replacing human power and the opportunities that created (barely a whisper about the jobs eliminated). He is bullish on the notion that AI will be equally disruptive but is optimistic many more jobs will be created than eliminated. The pessimists will of course point out Free Trade can make the same claims. But it does hurt some folks and when those that lose their way of life are concentrated in the right areas at the right time, Mr. Wilson buys Mr. Paduda a drink.

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