How automation is helping solve construction industry labour shortage
The Fifth Estate
27 Sept 2022
MARKET PULSE: Traditionalists may baulk at the prospect of a dystopian, robot-led future, but it looks like robotics are already starting to take over the construction industry.
MARKET PULSE: Traditionalists may baulk at the prospect of a dystopian, robot-led future, but it looks like robotics are already starting to take over the construction industry. The good news is that this automation spells an end to widespread labour shortages and a solution for faster, cheaper, and safer builds.
Australia’s largest brick manufacturer Brickworks has increased its shareholding to an undisclosed amount in ASX-listed robotic bricklayer FBR.
This comes as Australian 3D printing building and construction company Luyten has inked a partnership with UNSW to build structures and base camps on the moon and other planets, including Mars.
Meanwhile, Mirvac has used prefabrication to reduce labour hours by 11 per cent and cut build time by almost 25 per cent for townhouses, including for its 911-home Tullamore housing estate in Melbourne’s Doncaster East.
Automation is good news for Australia’s remote regional areas, where access can be difficult and labour often needs to be employed on a fly-in-fly-out basis.
But it also spells a boon for suburbia, too, as construction robotics companies claim their respective techs have the ability to construct a three bedroom family home in a matter of days, with minimal supervision required.
Ahmed Mahil, co-founder and chief executive of Luyten claims that his company is the first to 3D print a house.
He says countries across the world are mandating targets for automation in the construction industry, and Australia would do well to follow.
“The majority of SMEs in the construction industry are operating at thin margins. There’s an issue with the economics of it. They can’t cope with the demand. This industry is at a crisis point.”
In 2016 the United Arab Emirates became the first country in the world to promote 3D printing technology in its construction industry, setting a 25 per cent target by 2030. Other countries are following suit.
The company designs and manufactures custom large-scale three-dimensional mobile concrete printers used in construction of small buildings like family homes (up to three bedrooms) and walls.
“The majority of SMEs in the construction industry are operating at thin margins,” Mahil told The Fifth Estate.
“There’s an issue with the economics of it. They can’t cope with the demand. This industry is at a crisis point.
“We provide a robotics solution that can solve that… This is a robot that is more accurate than a heart surgeon.”
Mahil’s 3D printing company has inked a partnership with UNSW’s Dr Kate Dunn from the School of Built Environment to research construction in other planets.
Applying findings from construction in remote outback areas in Australia, Mr Mahil says one of the biggest barriers to building in dangerous and remote areas, including on the Moon, is the cost associated with transporting machinery and materials.
Similarly, another company working in the construction automation technology field is FBR with a bricklaying tech that aims to make the construction industry safer for workers and overcome labour shortages.
“We like to say it’s safer, faster, more accurate, and less wasteful,” the company’s chief commercial officer Kiel Chivers told The Fifth Estate.
“Construction has a lot of safety challenges, it’s often referred to as dull and dangerous. Taking away that human element reduces repetitive injuries.”
“Covid shone a light on our reliance on human labour and imported labour… People’s minds have been opened to changing the way we do things.”
Safety breaches cost the industry $17 million a year, according to WorkSafe.
The tech also has the ability to reduce waste in an industry that generated 27 million tonnes of waste in 2018-2019, according to the latest data in the National Waste Report 2020.
“We completed a build with zero onsite waste, we’re at the forefront of environmental improvement and change and we can still improve from here.”
Mr Chivers says it’s collaboration that will push the industry along when it comes to automation.
“What we need to see for construction robotics to really come to the mainstream is to see the convergence of technologies.. It’s in everyone’s best interests [that] we continue to work together rather than see [each other] as a competition.”
Luyten’s Mr Mahil agrees it’s important to see more businesses in this space.
“That brick company [FBR] is a good example of an Australian business with a different technology that can build brick homes, it’s a good thing to see Australian technology going overseas.
“It’s very good news.”
In response to the tongue-in-cheek question of whether robots are stealing construction jobs, Mr Mahil says the tech provides a solution to safety issues on site and will only provide more jobs by enabling more work to get done.
“No one can steal your job, but if you’re in a job that doesn’t make money and hurts your body… Think about this, 20 years ago we used power drills with a lot of wires and there [were] a lot of liability cases. Battery power drills did not take anyone’s jobs, [they] created more jobs.
“It’s a tool that creates more high paying and better jobs. It will open up more jobs.”
FBR’s Chivers told us that in Perth where the company is based, it’s been “impossible to get a bricklayer in the past three years.
“There’s a massive shortage. There’s a lot of work out there and we don’t see ourselves as displacing any bricklayers. We want bricklayers to use this technology – the market is so phenomenally huge there’s no major issue of displacement for anyone.”
A report commissioned by MYOB found that 39 per cent of 181 mid-sized manufacturing businesses were worried that skilled labour shortages would be a challenge for their business.
The report also found that 33 per cent of businesses surveyed were planning automation of manual processes and 44 per cent planned to invest in innovation to improve production lines.
Almost two thirds of those surveyed had more work than usual in the pipeline for the next three months.