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Digital Construction Summit: Robots ‘to augment workers, not replace them’

19 May 2019

The march of construction robots is not something to be feared by workers, who will instead see their capabilities enhanced by new technology.

That’s according to SNC Lavalin Atkins expert on robotics, Neil Thompson, the consultant’s digital construction director, speaking in a panel session at the Digital Construction Summit last week on emerging digital technologies.

While he felt the use of robotics in construction was set to increase, thanks to falling prices of hardware and the relative ease with which machines can be programmed, he does not expect the technology to replace skilled people. 

“The price of a particular type of robot called cobots [or ‘co-robots’] are reaching around £5,000 for a robotic arm. They are relatively straightforward to programme and create an interesting dynamic for construction,” said Thompson.

“Instead of thinking about robotics being an industrial process to displace people, we should look at robotics in terms of the natural progression from the screwdriver to the power drill to the cobot arm, where you are augmenting the capabilities of skilled labour.”

Thompson, who said he had looked at robotic manufacturing techniques around the globe, pointed to work Atkins has been doing in the nuclear decommissioning sector to improve safety and productivity. “You are not looking at someone’s role and automating it, you are looking at the subtasks within those roles and applying robotics to that, so we are taking people out of harm’s way in the nuclear decommissioning process,” he added.

His comments came as new research from the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) suggested that few construction employers expected new technologies to cut jobs.

Of 800 sector employers surveyed by the industry skills body, twice as many said new and emerging technologies – such as automation and artificial intelligence – will see their workforce grow over the next three years compared to those who think it will shrink (20% as against 9%).

The majority (81%) cited higher efficiency, as well as improved precision (65%) and new business opportunities (55%) as likely benefits.

Image: Ekkasit Jokthong/Dreamstime.com