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The psychological impacts of working with construction robots

by Sion Geschwindt
The psychological impacts of working with construction robots

Deployment of construction robots is accelerating, but what are the psychological impacts on workers? Reva Harris, writing for Trimble, opens the conversation

Between high demand for new buildings and massive investments in infrastructure, the construction sector’s outlook is booming, and robotics will play an increasingly important role in bringing those projects to life.

No longer the stuff of science fiction, construction robots offer a solution to the industry’s staffing challenges, inefficiencies, and safety issues, and are already widely used in agriculture, manufacturing, and logistics.

And now the construction industry has developed the openness and technology ecosystem to make them viable for widespread deployment on construction sites.

In January 2020, analyst firm IDC predicted that between 2020 and 2023, demand for construction robots will increase 25% year on year.

But introducing robots to construction sites raises practical questions about human interaction and workflows. As this first wave of robotics makes its way to job sites, early adopters are working out the answers to these questions.

Here’s what to expect.

The state of robotics in construction

The use of robotics in construction isn’t new. Japan is credited with developing the first construction robots, which were used in the fabrication of modular homes in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Over time, the Japanese construction industry began to introduce robots to construction sites as well, where they performed tasks like fireproofing and painting.

Now, robotics perform a variety of jobs on construction jobsites, ranging from laser scanning, to concrete spraying, and to specialised tasks like brick-laying and welding.

Despite the progress made in Japan, most other countries have been slow to adopt construction robotics. But now, several critical factors have aligned to drive change, starting with construction’s historically stagnant productivity levels.

The construction sector has also long struggled with staffing challenges. But contrary to some popular beliefs, robots aren’t likely to eliminate construction jobs. Instead, they will take on tedious, repetitive, and dangerous tasks so workers can focus on expanding their capabilities, ultimately changing the nature of construction work.

As technology adoption accelerates, robotics will become more commonplace for their labor, productivity, and cost-saving potential.

Perceptions about working with robots

Introducing robots to construction sites raises practical questions about how humans will respond to them. The most common perception of robotics is that it will cause human workers to lose their jobs.

In a Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science study of employees across industries, respondents were extremely concerned that robotics and automation would make them obsolete. This is an understandable sentiment, since robots are widely touted for their ability to take on tasks that are dangerous or undesirable.

However, additional research reveals that perspectives about robots are a bit more nuanced. How robots are introduced can have an impact on employee perceptions, with one study finding that attitudes towards robots are more favourable when the robot is perceived as equipment, instead of as a coworker.

“The most common perception of robotics is that it will cause human workers to lose their jobs”

The key difference between whether a robot is viewed as equipment or as a coworker is its level of autonomy. Fully autonomous robots are seen as coworkers, while semi-autonomous ones are viewed as equipment.

The report’s authors suggest that this has something to do with the way we interpret robot behaviors. We may be more inclined to view fully autonomous robots as rational entities that make choices based on a set of desires or beliefs.

On the other hand, people may approach semi-autonomous robots as machines that perform certain functions based on human input, like a car that accelerates when you press the gas pedal. When your foot hits the gas, your car doesn’t do any decision-making, it simply sets off a series of mechanisms that increase speed.

This distinction between autonomy levels points back to the fear of robots taking human jobs. This isn’t a reason to shy away from using fully autonomous robots, but it’s something that firms need to be aware of as they introduce robotics to their teams.

Another factor that determines favourability towards working with robots is technology self-efficacy. Put simply, self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to perform tasks to meet a particular goal. Employees with higher levels of self-efficacy, particularly related to the use of robots, are more likely to have an accepting attitude towards robotics. To develop that self-efficacy, workers need exposure.

These findings align with those in the Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science report. Employees reported higher levels of job satisfaction when they were given the chance to use novel technology to perform more complex tasks.

These results help provide a path forward for organisations that want to integrate robotics into their workflows. Exposing workers to robotics, and using them to enhance an employee’s skill set can help mitigate some of the fears around working with autonomous technologies.

Successfully integrating robotics into construction

What do these findings mean for the construction industry? AEC firms that successfully leverage robots to enhance their workforce’s capabilities are more likely to foster positive attitudes about robotics.

Compared to other industries, construction has historically invested less in improving workers’ skills. Introducing construction robots can be the catalyst for many AEC companies to increase skills training and help their employees (and their business) remain relevant as the industry evolves.

Increase worker capabilities with new workflows

As significant issues like sustainability and higher costs become more pressing, construction workers can shift to focusing on problem-solving instead of performing time-consuming, manual, repetitive tasks. Robotics can play an important role in freeing up their time and helping them identify solutions to the challenges they face.

Defining the right workflows will help employees see how their work is changing, not being eliminated by robotics. For example, robots can be used to perform scanning tasks on construction sites. Trimble has co-developed a solution based on Boston Dynamics’ Spot quadruped robot platform.

“Defining the right workflows will help employees see how their work is changing, not being eliminated by robotics”

The robot walks the site and scans to generate a fully registered point cloud that can be accessed immediately by construction teams. With that data, workers can perform in-field visualisations and analyses, such as scan-to-model comparisons and inventory management.

The robot can also share information with the broader project team via the cloud so they can perform design validation work. This is an unprecedented level of data access, and it opens up new possibilities for construction teams.

David Burczyk, construction robotics lead at Trimble, said: “Robotics users are generating data that they’ve never really had before. Access to these unprecedented levels of data availability is opening up new ideas and new workflows. What kind of data do you capture? How often do you capture it? And then what do you start to do with that data?”

With better data, teams can increase predictability on the job site by improving design reviews, materials planning, and scheduling, as well as reducing rework. Not only do these enhanced capabilities make construction teams more effective, they also help workers maintain a sense of relevance as the tools of the trade evolve.

Building trust

As robotics adoption expands, it’s important to cultivate a sense of trust among employees, especially with fully autonomous robots. Exposure to robotics is central to achieving that objective and developing robot use self-efficacy.

When people feel that they understand why the robot is being introduced and exactly what tasks it will perform, it can help remove any wariness they have.

Virtual learning can help construction firms expose their workers to autonomous technology without having to deploy robots for training en masse, which is being explored by researchers at the University of Southern California.

Technology providers and early adopters can also work together to identify best practices for human-robot interaction. Being transparent about successes and failures can help assuage worker fears about working with robots.

Younger, more technologically proficient workers are more likely to be open to working with robots. In fact, it can be a selling point. An overwhelming majority of young employees – 70% – questioned by Deloitte Consulting say that they lack at least some of the skills required to maintain their relevance as technology advances.

Construction firms that can offer exposure to innovative technologies like robotics will stand out to young, tech-savvy workers. And employers will benefit from those employees’ comfort and confidence in their ability to use robotics to perform complex tasks.

Safety training and awareness

Construction robots are tested extensively before ever making it to the jobsite, and advances in motion detection technology enable them to work autonomously without crashing or falling over. While robots generally improve worker safety, construction teams still need to be aware of how to avoid hazards and spot malfunctions, and what to do in case of an emergency (such as using the emergency shut-off switch). This training helps to give people a sense of control.

With that being said, robots function predictably as their routing is programmed and their area of operation is geofenced. Unpredictability enters the picture when humans and robots interact. For example, workers may be distracted by the novelty of robots and want to watch them work. Everyone working on the same job site as robots – from subcontractors to project managers – needs to be trained on how to prevent accidents caused by distractions.

Further reading:

Preparing workers for the future

It’s an exciting time in construction. While robotics adoption is still in its early stages, the stars are aligning to create a tipping point. Even at this stage, it appears that fears of job obsoletion aren’t completely well-founded, since construction has long suffered from a shortage of labor. As adoption of robotics continues to expand, the industry stands to gain from the productivity and data capabilities they offer. 

Fine-tuning the relationship between robots and humans is essential to fostering positive attitudes about robotics in the workplace. Employees need to feel like their jobs are evolving with the technology, not being eliminated because of it. By exposing them to construction robots and developing collaborative human-robot workflows, the construction sector can engender healthy perspectives about robotics, and unlock the value that they provide.

Main image: Trimble has co-developed a solution based on Boston Dynamics’ Spot quadruped robot platform (credit: Trimble)

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