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From driverless cars and drones, to robots working in operating rooms, manufacturing plants and fast food restaurants, machine automation is making headlines – and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. And when it comes to machine automation, the construction industry is poised to be a hotbed of innovation. Equipment manufacturers and technology providers in the construction industry have the benefit of using the lessons learned from the manufacturing and automotive industries to meet the needs of contractors, project owners and machine operators through more efficient, highly automated equipment.

According to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), there are six stages of automation, ranging from zero autonomy to full automation, where a vehicle is capable of performing all driving functions under all conditions. The construction industry is somewhere in the middle of these six stages, with some automation functionality available on some equipment today, but still requiring an operator to remain engaged with the driving task and the environment. 

Today, moving toward automation is an important part of the product development strategy for most construction equipment manufacturers and technology providers. Although it will still be quite some time before contractors are using fully automated machines on the jobsite, the continued shortage of skilled workers, opportunities for increased safety and environmental concerns are pushing the industry closer to full automation every day. How will automation help the construction industry overcome these three challenges?

Improving the appeal of a career in construction

Machine automation helps alleviate the challenges resulting from the labor shortage in two important ways: it eliminates the need to find people to do some of the least desirable and hard-to-fill jobs in the construction industry, and it makes a career in construction more appealing to more people.

Making construction equipment smarter doesn’t necessarily mean taking jobs away from people who want them. Instead, it helps reduce the need for people to do work that is otherwise dangerous, repetitive and done in undesirable environments, and creates more appealing jobs that require increased skill levels, such as overseeing the operation of several machines from inside an office on the jobsite.

The shift toward more automated tasks and machine operation also helps reduce operator fatigue, simply by making manual tasks easier to do. Having operators who feel fresher and more alert helps increase jobsite safety, but it also helps improve the quality of life for machine operators.  

Improving jobsite safety

Increased worker safety is one of the biggest benefits of automating construction equipment, and it doesn’t take the fully automated machines of the future to start realizing these benefits now. Already, machine control, excavator automatics, safety alerts, cameras and other technology solutions have made great strides toward increasing the safety of those who are working on and around equipment on a jobsite. 

As equipment continues to become more autonomous, this will mean more jobs will shift from working around equipment to jobs that can be done from a safer distance. In fact, the most progress toward full automation is already being made in the most dangerous environments; for example, with remote control dozers in mines.

Another important benefit of the move toward automation is that automated machines can operate just as easily in adverse conditions, such as rain or fog, as they can in ideal conditions. This means fewer accidents caused by decreased visibility, slick or wet surfaces or other challenges faced by operators working in challenging conditions.

Easing environmental concerns

The construction industry has a substantial impact on the environment worldwide. Automating construction equipment – or even certain tasks – can help increase equipment efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of today’s jobsites. 

Smarter machines provide significant productivity improvements because they work so efficiently. With asphalt compaction, for example, it can take multiple tries for human operators to find the most optimal and efficient rolling path. Through technology, the machine can work directly to the digital design, resulting in lower fuel consumption, less wear and tear on the machine and reduced material waste. Although these savings can be difficult to quantify today, by reducing the likelihood of human error, contractors can significantly increase productivity and efficiency with a solution that is far more environmentally friendly.

Increasing overall productivity

In addition to improved safety, increased job satisfaction and environmental benefits, machine automation is already helping contractors run their businesses more efficiently and more profitably. Quite simply, making machines smarter will enable contractors to do more with less – less time, less material, less rework and less wear and tear on both people and machines. 

Those who will be at the forefront of adopting this technology are already realizing the benefits of the technology that is moving us closer every day to full autonomy, which includes machine control, constructible models, unmanned aerial vehicles, augmented reality and other innovations in construction technology.  

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