An industry that can invest in people, is the same industry that can invest in robots

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.

Robotic technology in the construction indusstry

Is robotic technology the future?

The benefits of using robotic technology are well-publicised and potentially massive. The construction industry has a skills shortage and robots could, for example, lay bricks, helping where labour supply is seriously limited. On top of this, robotic technology could also improve the way the existing human workforce performs, such as through the use of robotic exoskeletons to help with lifting heavy or awkward loads.   

However, a bit like da Vinci’s creation, it could take a great deal longer than many expect for some of the innovative, disruptive technologies to become ubiquitous.  

Historically, the unique nature of construction projects, together with the cyclic nature of the industry – not to mention the requisite need for large-scale investment – have meant that technological advances have often been slow to propagate. 

These conditions create the ‘investment paradox’ in construction, where any kind of capital intensity is mitigated due to the fear that value for money and full utilisation may not be achieved on construction projects; largely because of the unique nature of work and the demand cycle.  

That is to say that construction suppliers are notorious for recruiting cautiously.  How would it be any different for robots, which will be more capital intensive and likely need to demonstrate a significantly higher output to make the numbers work?

Investment in anything, be it robots or people, is therefore limited. 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.  

Creating the right environment for technological investment

That said, evidence suggests that construction sectors where future workload is more certain are much better positioned to invest more. Crossrail, with its £16bn ten-year programme, have deployed over 400 new technologies and 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 but still manages to make substantial investment in high-technology and innovation, spending in excess of 5% of revenues on research and development. In contrast, construction spends less than 1% of its revenues on R&D.  

All told, construction is unlikely to have a robot-based future unless it has more of a long-term view and the margins to allow sustained investment. After all, not all investments deliver what is expected of them, and certainly not straight away. 

People and the productivity challenge

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.

Not only that but 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 actually 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 needed. 

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, bringing in this sort of technology on a large scale is not straightforward. We need to invest more in people, both as a lever to boost productivity in construction and as an enabler of the robots themselves.  

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 they are realising their potential. 

Will Waller

Director - Head of Futures +44 (0)7787 152 097 Ask me a question