Robotics & automation in the construction industry

A question of ethics: if construction is industrialised and the use of robotics and automation is increased, what will happen to the displaced workforce?

When technology begins to transform the need for human labour, what is the approach to ethics?

When companies begin to embrace AI (artificial intelligence) and automation there will be, in some regards, an increase in jobs. However, what is much more likely is that many jobs disappear altogether. What happens to the displaced workforce and do businesses have an ethical obligation to help their workers? Companies do need to be aware of all of the negative repercussions of new technologies alongside the many positive aspects. In short, humans need to be central to the future workplace, complementing, augmenting and controlling the technological solutions.

Levels of automation

Cost-focused automation

This is when technology is only used for economic benefits (i.e. the reduction of workforce size). These are cost-based programs that frequently fail to deliver. They are not human-centric or socially conscious and can actually be detrimental to businesses.

Performance-driven automation

This approach to automation values the role of humans more than cost-focused automation. The systems and processes are engineered in ways that take advantage of technology and automation whilst still using a traditional workforce to fill in the shortfalls in technology. A good example is in the warehouses at Amazon where people carry out tasks that need flexibility and dexterity like packing and picking items. Robots, on the other hand, will take on roles that involve the transportation of heavy bins or other heavy lifting jobs. Of course, systems like this have moved beyond cost-focused automation but they don’t particularly consider any larger implications for the workforce.

Worker-centred automation

When businesses use automation that is worker-centred, they aim to enrich and develop workers as well as business performance. The idea is that people aren’t sidelined or replaced by machines. Instead, there are new ways for humans and machines to interact – the machines use technology to augment the capabilities of people. An example of this is in the manufacturing lines for Toyota where the workers produce goods manually at first and simplify and innovate the processes as they go. Once when the processes have been perfected to machines take over the work.

Automation that is socially responsible

The best type of automation is one that is socially responsible. This idea is that jobs for humans are better and more plentiful with automation. Of course, this isn’t easily achieved by many and business owners need to be proactive in their identification of new streams of revenue and growth of jobs with new automation. Such an example is Marlin Steel, a company based in Baltimore. Often, when a small manufacturing business introduces automation, the workforce is hit hard. Marlin Steel bucked this trend, however. Their business started to see a decline in demand and competition that was rising. The company started to invest in automation and robotics and redesigned the production process and product line. They were able to create highly-engineered custom products and this expanded their client base. Whilst doing this, they trained their employees on how to operate the new technology.

The say of the workers

If we’re looking for businesses to adopt automation that is socially responsible, we need to think about giving the workforce a say – even in their own redundancies. If automation does lead to redundancies there are different ways of approaching these.

There is certainly a wrong way to go about redundancies as the Finnish telecommunications company Nokia found out. Back in 2008, Nokia decided to close one of its plants in Germany. Workers turned up for work to discover the factory gates were locked and that their jobs had moved overseas. Nokia lost a lot of money and customers as the fallout to this was very public. They did learn from this mistake though. In 2011, Nokia was once again, forced to close down some aspects of its business, which meant that around 1800 people lost their jobs in 13 different countries. This time, Nokia approached it differently. They offered people to work in different jobs at Nokia or complete new training programmes to upskill. They could apply for grants if they wanted to switch careers altogether too. Nokia even invited other competitors to career fairs to help their employees who were forced into redundancy.

So, is automation ethical?

If we’re going to answer that question, we need to understand what we mean by ‘ethical’. Normally, ethics relate to morals and are relevant when discussing behaviour rather than material objects. Automation is not a behaviour but a tool so if we’re asking whether automation is ethical, we’re really discussing whether creating or using automation itself is ethical.

When automation is used correctly, it can certainly improve the workforce. It can allow team members to progress and gain new skills. It can also reduce the number of tasks that the workforce often consider to be frustrating or draining. In this way, creating automation is entirely ethical – it has the goal of improving the lives of the workforce. It is only when we use automation incorrectly that it becomes unethical.

How can we make sure the use of automation is always ethical?

As long as we treat automation as an assistant or an aid rather than a replacement, there are no ethical issues. Automation is simply a tool that we can use to help employees instead of replacing them. The construction industry can really benefit from automation and there are many opportunities for beneficial and ethical automation too.