Could generative AI bring about remote construction work?

Kelly Boorman is national head of construction and a partner at RSM UK

With low margins and little room for error, the construction industry faces the challenge of complex, disjointed project delivery and inaccurate financial forecasting outcomes, dependent on human insight and manual work. Historically a labour-intensive industry, change could soon be on the horizon for the construction workforce, driven by generative artificial intelligence (gen AI) and data analytics.

“It won’t be too long before we see site activity managed remotely by robotics”

Making use of this technology will help us to understand how buildings are used, what people need from them, and how to implement better risk and safety regulations. RSM UK’s recent Real Estate 360 survey found that 41 per cent of businesses see gen AI as a threat, and with only 19 per cent invested so far, there’s much to do when it comes to changing perception.

One of the industry’s biggest challenges, particularly during the past four years, has been to manage rising costs and material and labour shortages. This has been further exacerbated by the industry’s use of data capture, often being slow to feed in changes and requiring human intervention to forecast costings and outcomes. It is no secret that that industry faces a real skills and productivity issue, as more than 500,000 UK construction workers are set to retire in the next 10 years, while 2023 saw a 6 per cent fall in apprenticeship starts.

New world, new skills

That is all set to change in the next two decades, as we’re going to see a major shift in labour profiling and skills required in construction, especially as gen AI advances. This will encourage greater diversity in the workforce and change people’s mindsets on the skills required.

Traditionally, construction is perceived to be a manual industry with all activity taking place on site, but the reality is the industry needs workers with skills in design, architecture, surveying and planning. Currently, just 13 per cent of the overall workforce is made up of women.

However, technology is opening up more opportunities to utilise different skillsets and ways of thinking, and it won’t be too long before we see site activity managed remotely by robotics. This will lead to the removal of barriers linked to gender and disability, enabling people to take on construction roles and manage onsite operations remotely from their desks, for example controlling a crane. Equally, better technology implementation will support greater flexibility towards shift patterns, especially for those trying to juggle work and home life.

Previously, the industry has also experienced challenges due to government restrictions on overseas labour. However, as technology becomes more embedded in site operations such as automated routine tasks, language and geographical barriers will also fall away, as communication will be through robotics. As with anything new, this will be a trial-and-error process, and it may take the industry some time to get to grips with how it’s managed, but in the long term it will lead to fewer mistakes.

In addition, as data capturing and analytics advances, businesses will be more informed and have the opportunity to innovate and develop more efficient processes relating to carbon neutrality, design and decision making.

Gen AI will also play a fundamental role in the future of building safety and regulation, especially from a design perspective. Robotics technology is being adopted in Asia and parts of Europe that provides onsite surveillance and accesses areas that contain chemical and hazardous material.

As remote management develops, this will also lead to better onsite safety as there will be fewer people manually operating machinery and equipment, reducing the risk of accidents.

However, as technology advances, other risks will transpire relating to cyber security, so businesses will need to consider their long-term risk-management strategies relating to remote access and cyber breaches.

The shift to gen AI requires collaboration with education providers, and we’ve recently seen this in action with Balfour Beatty signing a 54-year contract in partnership with the University of Sussex to build and operate a new student accommodation project.

A growing number of universities are also introducing gen AI degree programmes, indicating that those leaving higher education from now will be most impacted by the changing technology landscape. The partnership between industry and education is important for the future of construction, because as technology brings together traditional ways of thinking with modern methods of innovation, there will be some conflicts to overcome.

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