Next time you’re passing through one of the UK’s many towns or cities, take a look at the obvious favouritism to construct our buildings using masonry instead of other methods of construction. The UK construction industry for many years has been facing a skills shortage crisis. The industry needs to be recruiting 1,600 bricklayers a year to fill this gap. Due to this consistent struggle to recruit, project costs and programmes increase as a consequence, but as with all challenges, is there an opportunity here to focus on other means of reducing the skills gap? …Maybe with robots?
The semi-automated mason (SAM) robot is the machine all bricklayers have been fearing; it lays bricks 4-6 times faster than the average bricklayer can, is more precise and can work for longer! So why aren’t these machines taking over yet? Probably because they cost around £300,000 per machine and still requires two operatives to utilise it. They also aren’t as versatile as a human, with one construction site never being the same as the next, these machines struggle to operate in these environments when they have been developed in a pristine laboratory setting where the ground is flat and the weather is controlled!
While there appears to be a lot of rumbles in the media about how robots will put us all out of a job in the coming years, due to the construction industry’s need to provide competitive bids and the risk of an unsecured pipeline of work, the industry is unlikely to risk investing capital to fund the research and development of these robots.
So maybe we won’t see these robots taking over our construction sites tomorrow, but would it be a bad thing if we did? No. If we view the adoption of SAM as an opportunity to increase our productivity levels then we can increase the housebuilding target (or meet the existing one) and with the machine still requiring operatives to use it, it is unlikely bricklayers will be out of a job but rather that their role may change and their work will be less physically demanding and safer, which could potentially make the trade more attractive to new entrants and reduce the annual recruitment requirement.