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Just how much of the construction process can be (more) automated?

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There’s a clever advertisement that has seen a lot of coverage in various media recently, which first amused, then intrigued me. The headline is “Hey Chat GPT, finish this building…” It’s an ad for Belgian job agency, Impact, and features a multistorey building, wrapped in scaffold and plastic, with the tagline “your skills are irreplaceable”. But are they really?

Given how expensive and (relatively) inefficient our construction process is here in NZ, at the very least there are significant productivity gains to be made from the use of more automation and offsite manufacturing.

Self-driving vehicles are still some way from mainstream, but it’s hardly a stretch to imagine that we could in the future have self-driving trucks to transport materials to construction sites. And as mechanisation and robotics improve, no doubt fewer actual humans will be required to operate factories or control the loading of those self-driving trucks.

Likewise, we already have robot vacuum and window cleaners, so why not robot plasterers and painters in the near future? And as offsite manufacturing develops and modular components get more complex, the amount of plumbing and electrical work required on site might also be reduced.

Avoiding further conjecture though, there are a number of technologies and initiatives already underway to lift productivity in construction. MBIE has recently launched BuiltReady, a streamlined consenting pathway for standardised modular components. As architects and builders get more familiar with this there will be substantial efficiencies to be gained.

There are a number of NZ companies producing innovative timber products for use in construction. Cross Laminated Timber, or CLT, is a form of mass timber panel that can be cut to order in factory, meaning that walls, floors and components like staircases are delivered to site ready for install.

Likewise Structurally Insulated Panels, or SIPs, are panels that can be used in place of traditional timber framing in walls and roofs. They can be assembled as individual panels on site or pre-assembled into larger sections in the factory and pre-cut to shape, including openings like windows.

Local companies Qorox and Iconic Construction have partnered to pioneer 3D concrete printing in New Zealand and have recently completed the first 3D printed commercial building in the southern hemisphere, a childcare centre right here in Hamilton.

These are just a few examples, and most are currently being used individually, but as architects and building companies develop ways of combining technologies into comprehensive systems, the efficiencies will compound.

This is not something to be afraid of. While automation and technology may replace some jobs, others will be created. We’ve had a chronic shortage of staff in many industries the past few years, so an increase in productivity is necessary simply to keep up with demand and the reality of an aging population.

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About Author

Phil MacKay

Phil Mackay is Business Devolpment Manger at Hamilton-based PAUA, Procuta Associates Urban + Architecture