Combining Robotics with Modular Construction to Address the Labor Shortage
Fewer people entering the labor force are joining the construction industry, while a substantial number of seasoned workers are reaching the point of retirement. This inopportune coincidence, as recounted in February 2022 by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), leaves the construction industry with a current labor gap of 650,000 workers and up to 2.2 million workers in the next three years.
The article states, “The construction industry desperately needs qualified, skilled craft professionals to build America.” The ABC article explains that regulations and worker demand for flexible working conditions hamper the filling of this labor gap.
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There is a solution companies are increasingly turning to so they can do more with less: automation. An April 2022 article in Construction Dive explained that robotics combined with people in modular construction settings can, among other benefits, help ease the labor shortage.
Although the surge in robotics has raised concerns about taking work away from people, the best use of robotic machines is supplementing the workforce to make workers’ lives safer and less physically demanding. Whether a robotic machine does the heavy lifting and overhead work, installs drywall, paints, or lays bricks, these are just a few examples of how workers can experience less wear and tear on their human bodies by having a machine do the risky and repetitive work.
People are still needed for critical thinking, discretion, creative ideas, programming, maintenance, and robotic operation. In an article on its blog, Procore points out that robotic machinery is expensive up front but can save money in the long run, since it can do those repetitive, risky jobs 24 hours a day.
The Procore article pointed out that drones are another way to accomplish work more safely using automation, for instance observing the job from heights that would otherwise require a person’s risky climb. A drone typically requires one person to operate it, or it can even be programmed to work autonomously.
As described by ModularHomeowners.com, a modular home is constructed from two or more factory-made “boxes” that are fitted together onsite. Because it takes place in a factory setting, modular construction makes more efficient use of the available workforce. Some modular companies report a savings of one-quarter to one-half the time required to build by traditional methods.
In a factory setting, companies can have better oversight and insight into complications. The controlled factory environment enables companies to avoid:
- weather-related delays
- falls from heights
- crowding, confusion and distractions
- equipment and machinery scheduling
- labor coordination
Rather than competing with traditional construction, modular processes are complementary. They add to the industry’s effort to keep up with construction demand.
Not every company can or will transition to modular building. There will always be a demand for one-off construction projects. The ideal scenario is when general contractors collaborate with modular manufacturing companies to build more with less.
When robotics are added to modular construction processes, it can save even more time and labor. Robotic machines can work faster and with fewer errors. They don’t get tired; they don’t need sick leave; they enable production flexibility. The resulting efficiency translates into more profitable jobs.
Granted, autonomous technology is still being perfected. But for now, robotics can help address the labor gap, so the industry can strive to meet demand with the limited workforce available.