Self-Operating Construction Machines Part of Shifting Workforce

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By Elliott T. Dube

Heavy industry vehicles that can operate at least partially without human input are rumbling onto the construction industry landscape.

The rise of self-autonomous vehicles in the construction industry coincides with a changing workforce: younger workers who have grown up playing high-tech video games and interfacing with a screen are drawn to an industry that typically attracted workers who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

Several heavy equipment companies--such as Volvo, Komatsu and Caterpillar--have been pumping resources into fitting such traditional construction machines as bulldozers, excavators and dump trucks with the latest advances in GPS technology, machine learning, remote control and 3D modeling of job sites.

Advances in semi-autonomous and operator-assisted technology are coming “big and fast,” Jenny Elfsberg, Volvo Construction Equipment’s director of emerging technologies, told Bloomberg BNA.

Developments in this technology are coinciding with the construction industry workforce’s increased reliance on newer operators of limited skill who have been primed to work with screens, rather than massive machinery.

The automated capability of industry machines is moving beyond mere transport. It has entered the realm where machines can do a large part of the thinking needed to perform certain work movements where precision is key.

For instance, Japanese multinational equipment company Komatsu puts technology into bulldozers that makes it easier for human operators to use them to cut away several feet of material and reach a target surface with precision, Peter Robson, senior director of Komatsu America’s Smart Construction and intelligent Machine Control initiatives, told Bloomberg BNA.

A novice operator would struggle with the same task without the technology, Robson said. “We work to speed up the learning curve to being an effective and experienced operator.”

Contractors exploring equipment giant Caterpillar Inc.’s automated machine offerings are looking for the technology to help get workers out of harm’s way, boost their efficiency and produce high-quality work, the company’s customer enterprise digital manager, Mitch Tobias, told Bloomberg BNA.

Full Autonomy in Construction Further Away

The use of fully autonomous—completely self-driving—heavy industry vehicles thus far has been largely confined to mining and agriculture. Remote quarry and open farmland operations are ideal in that they tend to require machines merely to move in set, predictable paths.

In contrast, conditions at a construction site are more frequently in flux, with workers and materials moving in various directions and creating crowded spaces.

It is one thing for a self-driving machine to travel a simple path from one point to another, Elfsberg said. It’s a taller order to have the machine adapt to such a consistently changing environment as a construction site, and sensor technology isn’t yet robust enough for it to happen, she said.

A self-driving machine would need to know which work-site obstacles it could run over safely and which ones it would need to stop for, and it would need to account for challenging surface conditions such as mud or snow, Elfsberg said. “The machines today can be automated but not fully autonomous—they can’t really think for themselves,” she said.

But such companies as Elfsberg’s are helping push the technology forward. At a Volvo CE forum in Sweden in September, the company demonstrated a prototype autonomous wheel loader repeatedly filling a prototype articulated hauler, which then dumped each load.

Advances Accompany Shifting Skill Sets

Recent developments in automated construction machine technology have coincided with a changing industry workforce.

U.S. grade schools have stepped away from trade and vocational education in recent decades, meaning that younger students are seeing less opportunity to get a feel for heavy industry machinery. This has played a role in the skilled labor shortages that continue to plague the construction industry.

“The guys that know how to drive machines from the seat of their pants or that like to get their hands dirty—there are less and less of those available,” Tobias said.

Meanwhile, there’s an increasing availability of younger workers who have grown up playing joystick-controlled video games, he said. These workers generally are more used to interfacing with a screen than older workers, he said.

Instead of replacing traditional laborers, current machine automation technology is “expanding the workforce by allowing other workers to be able to do the jobs with limited skills,” Tobias said.

Robson said he doesn’t think autonomous machine technology will create any major upheaval in the construction industry workforce during the next several years.

Workers will “still be in the machine,” he said. “I just think they’re going to be a lot more efficient and effective with the 3D terrain models and the design data that are with them in the machine.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Elliott T. Dube in Washington at edube@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

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