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are robots and automation the answer to the skills shortage in the construction industry?.

Faster, greener, safer, leaner: How housebuilding is set to get smarter

As Michael Gove takes over at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government from Robert Jenrick, the government looks set to move in a new direction when it comes to housebuilding. But with the construction industry facing challenges in the supply chain and a lack of skilled labour, can it meet the housing needs posed by an increasingly urbanised population?

The short answer is yes, if it diversifies and transforms to embrace MMC and robotisation.

The current climate

It's predicted that, by 2050, two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities and the demand for commercial and residential buildings will rise to new heights. Efficient modular construction is one critical solution that can also address the skills gap in traditional construction. In a 2019 survey, 65% of firms identified skills shortages as a major concern

Then there's the pressure to decarbonise, with construction accounting for 36% of global energy use and 40% of C02 emissions. Sustainability is another huge concern, with up to a quarter of materials transported on-site ending up as waste.

The answer could lie in greater standardisation and automation.

Efficiency, sustainability and labour

In the car industry, the use of robots is commonplace for repetitive, precision tasks. Yet in construction, only 55% of companies are using automation with many relying on processes that date back generations. That trend is changing, with a recent survey revealing that 81% of construction companies are looking to introduce robotics over the next decade.

It's not difficult to see why. Shifting to MMC and automation allows homes to be built sustainably, eliminating waste at the design stage of the process. Integrating automation with digitisation in off-site construction creates efficiencies and affordability, with robots handling repetitive tasks like welding and 3D printing safely and with precision. And because robots don't need breaks, the process is much faster. Using robots to assemble prefabricated components on-site could also improve efficiency and cut the costs of producing individualised homes.

Addressing the skills crisis

91% of construction businesses admit they face a skills crisis over the next decade, with 44% struggling to recruit for the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. There are currently 200,000 vacancies in the EU alone.

Using robots to plug the skills gap and take on dangerous jobs improves site safety, efficiency and sustainability. For example, Skanska is using ABB robots and RobotStudio software to produce rebars in concrete construction and handle a repetitive, weather-dependent and error-prone task. Robots can improve the speed of the task from 16 hours per tonne of steel to one hour per tonne.

This frees up workers to upskill, producing the next generation of craftspeople with highly sought after specialisms.

A fundamental shift

But for construction to get smarter, a fundamental shift needs to happen. Digitisation and automation need to be baked into the process of designing and constructing houses from the start so that architects can design for modular off-site construction.

This in turn will involve construction businesses in redefining the way they work, redesigning their off-site manufacturing processes from the ground up and optimising automation and robotics. Robots have the capability to increase choice and sustainability, transform productivity and reduce waste. The future of construction needs to make the same leap car manufacturing took 50 years ago to help the industry decarbonise and work smarter to meet the challenges ahead.

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