The (construction) robots are coming

“The machines will never replace the human,” Jeff Buczkiewicz, president of the Mason Contractors Association of America, told the NY Times regarding the role of robotics and masonry. Jeff was speaking to the Times at the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 bricklaying competition (who knew, right?), where fast-handed masons race to build high-quality walls in the least amount of time.

Also at the competition was SAM, a $400k bricklaying robot by Construction Robotics. SAM was slower than the humans (who could lay 7-9 bricks/minute) and didn’t have the “human element” Buczkiewicz claims is necessary to lay down bricks—elements like opioid addiction and onsite deaths, we assume. Nevertheless, the Times wasn’t so convinced the masons are safe from the robots.

The article feels portentous. Things are bad and seem to be getting worse for America’s contractors, masons included. Labor shortages are delaying projects and adding expense. The workforce is aging and younger folks are showing little interest in learning construction trades. The only people who might not want robotic intervention are the current contractor labor force, who are crushing it.

A recent report projected that “nearly 2.7 million [American] construction workers could be displaced or replaced by 2057, including 435,000 carpenters, 411,000 laborers, and 404,000 operating engineers.”

The ramp-up to a fully automated construction future is slow going in the U.S., with only a handful of smallish companies like Construction Robotics and Blueprint Robotics doing anything (the latter of whom seems to be using Euro tech). And both the Times and McKinsey suggest robots will have an assistive role for human workers in construction…for now.

But it’s not hard to see the future. In Japan, companies like Sekisui are utilizing robots for numerous construction processes. In Sweden, Lindbäcks can churn out a fully-framed wall in 17 minutes without a single human hand. 3D printed concrete buildings being developed in China will likely be a big freakin’ deal too.

In other words, it might not be long before the Bricklayer 500 contestants look like John Henry duking it out with the steam-powered hammer. And we know how that one ended.