How will AI affect the future of Construction jobs?

Construction has typically been regarded as the sector which is most resistant to adopting new technology. In fact, according to research from the McKinsey Global Institute, the architecture, engineering, construction and owner (AECO) industry as a whole possesses one of the lowest levels of digital adoption among all areas.

This is mostly put down to the fact that many companies work to extremely tight margins which limit their ability to invest and training and the development of new technology.

The good news is that there is a growing appetite to bring the construction workers into a new era. For example, the industry is the largest adopter of drone technology in the UK. PwC reported that the demand for drones has increased by 239% as businesses began to see the benefits of bringing them onsite.

The rise in automation on the building site holds much exciting potential, from its ability to save time when building structures to relieving physical strain for people working on manual roles. However, many people fear that the rapid adoption of AI and automated construction, resulting in jobs which are filled by machines and no scope to retrain.

Here, we explore new types of technology, while keeping in mind how humans and the labour they are able to offer are still vital to the construction and how striking a good balance will pave the way for a fruitful future.

3D printing

The potential of 3D printing to revolutionise building, particularly in prefab construction, is making waves across the sector. Russian company Apis Cor was able to 3D print a house in just 20 hours and the overall 3D printing market is anticipated to reach $56.4m (£44.1m) by 2021.

However, 3D printing  solutions will still rely on human input as houses constructed directly onsite must subsequently be insulated, wired and fitted with windows and doors. This shows exactly how 3D printing can reduce the timescale of a large building project, all while harnessing the manual skills of construction workers.

Brazilian firm Urban3D is pre-fabricating parts of buildings the assembling them onsite to combat the country’s housing crisis. This approach requires human workers to assemble the buildings but also shows how the techniques and methods behind 3D printing can be used to support the most pressing needs of societies.

VR in planning

Many UK architects already use software during the planning process, which has resulted in an unexpected new crop of workers. For example, people who have previously turned their skills to video game design have discovered a new calling in architecture. This is thanks to advances in visualisation software, which enables them to build in a medium they understand. A less conventional background in construction could foster creativity and new solutions to age-old issues.

Also originating from the gaming arena are VR headsets, which are more frequently appearing on UK building sites. Site managers can use them mid-construction to help visualise where pipes and cables will be fitted to avoid obstruction. While VR tech is still fairly rudimentary, this application promotes efficiency and can help site managers keep projects on time. 

Balfour Beatty’s ‘Innovation 2050’ whitepaper states that, by 2050, the building site will be free of people except for those operating mechanical exoskeletons. While this seems ambitious even at the rate technology is advancing, a more believable projection is that VR will allow the industry to envisage buildings before ground has even been broken. 

Machine learning

One of the most interesting things about the potential for machine learning applications in construction is the ability to build databases which can be referred to at every step of the building process. 

Architects can input the details of past projects to use during planning. When the program assesses a new brief, it can use previous jobs to suggest similar designs, identifying past pain points to allow for more realistic timeframes to be used in pitches. 

When monitoring current projects, AI programs could receive all the data of day-to-day activity so that when an issue presents itself, the program is able to use a database of past projects to identify similar problems. The program could then suggest ways to solve them based on how they were addressed in the past.

This would require human interaction to help it learn when to suggest appropriate solutions. This ensures that human architects and surveyors do not become obsolete, but actually use this new technology to augment their process. In this way, issues could be identified and resolved faster, subsequently improving health and safety, as well as project times and costs. 

To conclude

On the whole, increasing the presence of technology will have a positive effect on the industry. Designers are already making use of VR and AI when planning projects, allowing them to save time while retaining the creativity of human invention. 

New technologies will eventually be a necessary tool when it comes to manufacturing and installation. This is due to the level of accuracy which can be achieved through technology that is almost impossible to reach with human power alone. 

While AI and VR will likely soon become vital parts of any construction site, the most important aspect over the next decade will, without a doubt be, the balance between emerging tech and tradespeople. Leading industry voices claim that soon the building site will be fully automated but the intervention of human intelligence and skill is a vital part of the construction process.