In November last year, the Organization of Socialized and Economic Housing Developers of the Philippines (OSHDP) reported that the construction industry is somewhat slowing down because of the dearth of skilled labor. According to the study, manual laborers, which include construction workers, plumbers, and electricians now choose to go abroad for better pay. This makes it all the more urgent as President Duterte’s “Build Build Build” program, which will accelerate infrastructure development in the country, needs two million additional workers—but none of them are in sight.
The labor shortage is not exclusively a Philippine problem, however. In the same year, a survey by Turner and Townsend found that of 46 economies around the world, only three meet the demand for labor. Pay doesn’t matter; Swiss construction companies, for example, paid a hundred times more than the average in India, but they’re still short of human resources. This is a wake-up call for players that alternative ways to address the lack of labor should be considered. This is why task automation, or the use of robots and AI in the construction setting, is making noise lately.
But is the outlook better with robots doing manual labor? And, in the Philippines, would a heavy equipment company still be relevant in an age where superhuman machines can do all the work?
A Paradigm Shift
The construction industry is one of the least-automated sectors on the planet, so its piece of the world GDP—14.7%—is impressive, given that this is built on the backs of its laborers. In 2019 where robots are ubiquitous, it’s odd that exhausting labor is still left to people, but this is not because of income inequality. Robots have hitherto been only able to do repetitive movements that are programmed into it, which means if a situation hasn’t been thought of by its programmer, it will do nothing when it encounters that scenario. A construction worksite is the opposite. While there is an overarching plan, workers need to adapt to changes in the environment in real-time.
Fortunately, machine learning can make it much easier now for robots to take on construction roles. For example, a Japanese robot called HRP-5P demonstrated that it’s possible to make a single robot to do work that would otherwise take several human teams to accomplish. It’s slow at the moment, but that would change as faster circuits, and better programming are developed.
There are several benefits to choosing robot labor over human labor in this case. For one, robots do not get burned out, get sick, or file for holiday leaves. You can construct a building in less time because you can plug them in and let them do work over the weekend or overnight when human workers retire to sleep. For all that, however, human workers still need to oversee robotic labor and correct them as necessary.
The New Iron Man (or Men)
Research into robotics can also pave the way for augmentation, which is a middle ground between full automation and human labor. A company called Ekso Bionics had recently made waves when it debuted its exoskeleton. These products, fitted over a human frame, is cutting-edge wearable technology that enhances the human user’s strength and endurance, qualities highly prized in construction. The exoskeleton also reduces injury risk, especially in highly stressful or repetitive environments.
While labor shortage is still a problem in 2019, innovative ways to address this issue are emerging. And one of those ways that will likely take the lead? A robot.