Robot in a hard hat

drones and automated bricklayers are entering construction sites, filling talent gaps and helping humans avoid dangerous work


Construction of facilities for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan has begun. Facing a significant labor shortage, the country's construction industry could benefit from “smart construction” systems.



230,000 The shortage of construction workers in Japan 86%
Construction firms in the U.S. reporting labor shortages
£4.2 million
Budget of a project in England to create construction drones and robots

Construction project managers looking to cope with a labor shortage and speed up the building process are turning to a new talent pipeline: robots. In Japan, Komatsu, one of the world's largest construction companies, has created a “smart construction” system. Driverless bulldozers use construction-site information gathered by drones, cutting projects’ survey phase from two weeks to one day or less. The new system, which Komatsu is leasing for use on project sites, could deliver major efficiencies to organizations executing projects for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.


“With robots like SAM, project owners can choose to complete jobs faster with the same number of people or split the team to take on more projects.”

—Scott Peters, Construction Robotics, Victor, New York, USA


Similarly, a £4.2 million project in Leeds, England aims to create drones that can fix streetlights and potholes, as well as robots that can go into utility pipes to perform inspections and repairs. And Construction Robotics of New York has rolled out a commercial version of SAM, a semiautomatic mason that can lay three to five times as many bricks per day as a person, depending on the design's complexity.

Robotics will make project sites more efficient and enable companies to do more with the project teams they already have, says Scott Peters, president and cofounder of Construction Robotics, Victor, New York, USA. “With robots like SAM, project owners can choose to complete jobs faster with the same number of people or split the team to take on more projects,” he says. He also believes robots will help draw more and better talent to the construction industry by eliminating the need for humans to perform some drudge work.


A semiautomatic mason (SAM) places a brick.

Factor in Training Time

Making robots part of the project management process poses challenges to project owners and teams, however. Workers need to be trained to manage the new equipment and build daily task lists designed to maximize robot productivity. For example, if a building's design includes an area that a robot can't access, workers will need to determine when it will get to that point and be ready to step in so the robot doesn't have much downtime. They will also need to make sure the robot has access to materials, a clear workspace and any necessary data.


“Any time you introduce robots, there is the fear that jobs will be lost. Robots will never take over the construction site completely.”

—Jonas Buchli, PhD, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland


“There will be a learning curve for early adopters,” Mr. Peters says. But once automation is integrated into the project planning and management process, it will drive benefits for the project team and stakeholders. “Robotics can help construction owners leverage the talent they have, so that everyone can be more efficient,” he says.


It's no wonder construction project leaders are turning to robots: The industry's talent shortage is a problem around the world. Almost 45 percent of organizations that undertake major capital construction projects struggle to attract qualified labor, according to the KPMG 2015 Global Construction Project Owner's Survey. Japan's construction industry faced a shortfall of 230,000 workers last year, according to Japan Today.

“Large contractors are now refusing to take on new work, or [are] taking on only larger, more profitable jobs,” John Mader, senior project manager at Lendlease Japan, told the online newspaper. “In some instances, construction schedules are being extended because of the labor shortage.”

In the U.K., the two most sought-after roles are engineer and construction worker, according to a 2015 Recruitment & Employment Confederation/KPMG report. And in the U.S., 86 percent of construction firms reported skilled labor shortages in 2015, up 30 percentage points from 2013, according to consulting firm FMI's 2015 Talent Development Survey in the Construction Industry.

Not all team members will see the robots as a benefit at first. “Any time you introduce robots, there is the fear that jobs will be lost,” says Jonas Buchli, PhD, a professor at ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. Dr. Buchli was part of a project team that built the In-situ Fabricator, a robot that can perform tasks including laying bricks.

While robots like the fabricator can lead to reduced head count, the real goal is to automate the dangerous and menial tasks so workers can focus on more high-value work. “Robots will never take over the construction site completely,” Dr. Buchli says.

Instead, they could benefit companies struggling to fill lower-level roles and help workers avoid on-the-job injuries.

“In a traditional building site, safety and quality are difficult to control,” says Kathrin Doerfler, PhD, another member of the In-situ project team in Zurich. The Fabricator “provides great accuracy.” —Sarah Fister Gale




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