“It really feels like the industry is on the cusp of change.”
I overheard these words as I left day one of the CN Summit yesterday, after delegates had received several remarkable insights on the ways technology will change how the industry operates.
It’s a theme that has shaped discussions in many of the sessions over the two days. One stand-out example was a video of a robot ‘dog’ hammering around a warehouse at high speed before bounding up a staircase.
The audience was then equally enthralled – and perhaps slightly disturbed – by a clip of a bipedal robot effortlessly performing some athletic parkour moves from platform to platform.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person thinking that it’s only a matter of time before these advanced, self-determining machines are armed so that humans won’t have to enter conflict zones. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
But let’s stick with construction where the applications are obvious, as with the bricklaying robot that could build a wall in far less time than a human equivalent.
As Balfour Beatty health, safety, environment and sustainability director Heather Bryant frankly put it: “People say [robots] will take away jobs, but let’s face it: young people are not interested in construction,” while going on to say that the contractor is none-the-less keen to engage with them for roles which will fundamentally change through the adoption of technology.
David Bray, who is Highways England project director on the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon scheme, sees similarly significant upheaval heading the sector’s way.
“We are looking at autonomous vehicles, as we need to move 10m cu m of muck,” he said, explaining that the real challenge wasn’t getting the technology to work so much as managing the human-vehicle interface.
“I can see it happening within three years,” he added.
The flip side of embracing technology effectively is how it can improve how we tackle health and safety.
Severn Trent head of asset management Malcolm Horne is an advocate. “The beauty of digital models and VR is we can allow our operators to wander around sites [in a digital environment] before building actually starts,” he said – a distinct bonus on jobs where, as he pointed out, there is often “aggressive machinery on the site”.
Against this backdrop, Infrastructure and Projects Authority head of performance Huda As’ad believes the time to engage is now.
“The majority of the technology [being discussed] is already out there, but it’s [a case of] harnessing it. The government is in listening mode.”
That may be the case, but Innovate UK’s Sam Stacey – who is overseeing the Transforming Construction programme within the industry’s sector deal – pointed to the need for proactive government efforts.
He cited funding for the Core Innovation Hub, which is crucial to the sector deal yet still to be finalised. “There is, dare I say it, some frustration with getting final government sign-off,” Mr Stacey said.
Robotic workers and virtual reality are all well and good, but the CN Summit emphasised the importance of every part of the industry pushing in unison to realise technology’s potential.