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Blog & News

Skills shortages fuel AI demand

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Google “Artificial intelligence in Construction” and one thing is guaranteed.  The vast majority of articles you find will be accompanied by a graphic of a cyborg-type “human,” usually looking slightly dangerous.  This is the same mentality that causes articles about science to be accompanied by photos of people in white coats holding test tubes, but once you accept that this is the way journalists/editors’ minds work then you can get on with learning a bit more about the subject of your search.  

There is a lot to learn.  One of the most obvious things is that the results of your search will show a lot more articles on the subject of AI and construction published in the last year (and especially in 2018) than in the period before that.  OK, that’s partly the way Google works, but there is no doubt that there is an upsurge of interest in this subject.  In fact, brick-laying robots have even been mentioned on Talksport’s news bulletins (17thSeptember 2018), showing that the subject is becoming more mainstream. That report on Talksport is significant, given that the station’s audience is very much white-van man and trades.

As recruiters, we are well aware of the fact that one of the reasons for this is that it’s often quite hard for companies to find the people they want.  Skills shortages in construction, whether professional jobs or trades, are a real issue just now.  Obviously, a lack of skilled humans will encourage companies to consider alternatives, especially if those alternatives are reliable 24x7, don’t take sickies, cost less and work harder.

The obvious place for such innovation, as we’ve written about before, is at the front-line, where brickies may, in the years to come, be replaced by brick-laying robots (note to editors - they don’t look like cyborgs). Yet while this is inevitable, especially to replace the most dangerous types of site-work, the current interest is in areas such as analysing data and making decisions. 

AI and robotics have been part and parcel of many manufacturing processes for some time now.  Those adverts showing cars being built by robotic production lines are old hat, but the fact that AI is increasingly being used extensively in manufacturing means that it will become easier to adapt and adopt these technologies into other areas, including construction. 

Surveying and collating data on a prospective building site, creating blueprints and maps all take time when done by humans. If AI can do all these things more quickly then why would you not want to use it? Machines that are “aware” of the building site around them and can move around with human help are going to be increasingly used here.  As databases of sites builds us, the machines “learn” how best to adapt to their “knowledge” of housing types/styles, with the algorithms designing the optimum housing types for the site in question. Then, once the property has been built, AI devices inside the structure can monitor and advise on any structural problems and suggest possible solutions. The potential of this is huge: I’ve seen articles suggesting that in 2016, some $1.5 billion was invested in this market in the US.

Elf-n-safety is an obvious area where AI can improve matters.  The new Apple watch has an ECG that can alert the wearer’s doctor to life-threatening events. Similarly, wearable tech could alert a site manager via an app that a problem has arisen.  I’ve also read of CCTV being used on site to detect individuals not wearing acceptable protective gear and sending alerts to the person at risk. Also, by monitoring a site continuously, such technology will “learn from” the increasing amount of data available and, in a circular and cumulative process, use this “learning” better to “understand” how to make the industry safer.

The pace of change in this area is still relatively slow in construction, certainly compared to other industries.  However, it is quickening and we’ll continue to report on our news pages about developments as and when we hear of them. And we promise not to use a picture of a cyborg the next time…

Chris Peace, MD, Peace Recruitment

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