Robots could soon revolutionise Scotland’s construction industry

A new wave of robotic technology could herald a major shift to the way construction sites are manned. Picture: PA
A new wave of robotic technology could herald a major shift to the way construction sites are manned. Picture: PA
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Down on a building site, Sam’s arms are flying and bricks are piling up, one on top of the other. Blink and there’s another wall.

Overhead, delivery drones buzz. Sam – the name given to US-based Construction Robotic’s semi-automated bricklaying robot – doesn’t stop to watch, instead he keeps going all day, no lunch break required. By close of play, he’ll have laid 3000 bricks; the average flesh and blood brickie manages around 500.

While robo-brickie Sam presses on – even overnight, if required - driverless bulldozers can clear land for building foundations created by 3D printers, working from plans created by software programs which technology has ensured are accurate to the tiniest of measurements.

One thing obvious about the construction site of the future - it will be largely free of hi-vis jackets, hard hats and sweat.

Recent news of fleets of driverless lorries due to make their way along British motorways from next year, has already brought tomorrow’s world that bit closer. Department of Transport trials will see up to three vehicles travel in a wireless connected convoy, with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle.

If it sounds like science fiction, it’s just a taster of some of the sweeping changes technology is about to inflict on construction sites.

Right now they are corners of the industrial landscape which have barely changed since Roman times. There, other than the cranes and the earth moving kit, men – and it is still mostly men – still use bare hands to build, their mind’s eye to design and muscle power to bring it all together.

But a new wave of robotic technology is on the march. Led by the likes of Sam, it heralds a major shift to the way our construction sites are manned.

So is this brave new world of construction a force for good? Or does it come with a hefty price?

According to Daryl Teague, director of Edinburgh-based property developers Glencairn Properties, a combination of an aging workforce, the Brexit impact on labour from abroad, a skills gap - and demand for low cost homes, means the industry is perfectly positioned for technical disruption.

“According to business advisors McKinsey & Company, construction worker productivity has remained flat since 1945, while manufacturing, retail and agriculture has grown 1500 per cent,” he says. “This is exacerbated by the lack of a skilled workforce, something which could get worse if we move towards Brexit.

“I am not advocating taking skilled people’s jobs away,” he adds. “But if the supply of workers is not there then something is needed. Robots could be the solution.”

But it’s unlikely to totally transform the typical Scottish construction site any time soon.

Teague added: “Like all new industries the construction robotics industry is fragmented and experimental. The industry is trying to figure out how best to use the technology.”

With the Construction Industry Training Board predicting a need for 12,000 new workers to fill the skills gap over the next five years, one route forward could be a shift towards buildings manufactured on factory production lines with minimal assembly required on site.

A certain type of job will certainly go, adds Teague, pointing to PWC predictions of a quarter of construction jobs destined to disappear as technology advances. But skilled labour – the kind that uses years of training, talent and an artistic eye to create unique features which make a high quality building stand out from the mass produced, will survive.