In the Driver’s Seat – Or Not

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Driverless earthmoving equipment has emerged at the leading edge of disruption in the construction industry.

The Opportunity

In the 1920s, farming accounted for around 30% of Australian jobs. Thirty per cent. No industry today comes close to that kind of dominance. Less than 100 years later, and agriculture accounts for a mere 3% of the workforce.

The story of disruption in agriculture is, by and large, the story of the tractor. The machines that took over the task of sowing and harvesting crops slashed agriculture’s labour bill by orders of magnitude.

A similar story can be told about earthmoving. Prior to the industrial revolution, the excavation, moving and levelling of dirt and rock was accomplished by armies of men labouring on shovels and picks.

Today, these functions are performed by the 150,000 Australians who earn their living driving backhoes, bulldozers, excavators, loaders, graders, scrapers and rollers.

Earthmoving is a big industry, and it’s not going anywhere. But that doesn’t make it immune to disruption. Indeed, by our reckoning, earthmoving is the tip of the spear of transformation in the construction industry.

An almost human-less earthworks site has become a realistic prospect for the next generation of contractors, with all the big players making massive investments over recent decades – discover what Komatsu, Caterpillar and Volvo are all up to in this space.

These are not just driverless bulldozers. These are solutions that integrate a host of the latest digital and robotic fads. Drones are used to survey sites in three dimensions, providing all the data engineers need to develop detailed site plans. These plans are then loaded into intelligent machines capable of performing cut-and-fill operations completely autonomously.

While the big players are piling in, several upstarts from outside the construction supply chain are also moving in. One of these interlopers, Built Robotics, is a Silicon Valley start-up that retrofits existing earthmoving equipment with the latest self-driving car technology.

The Challenge

It would be naïve to pretend this technology is not a threat to today’s skilled operators of earthmoving equipment. It’s certainly easy enough to imagine them going the way of the pre-modern labourers they themselves replaced – putting 150,000 plant operators out of a job.

The problem with this thinking is that it assumes there’s a fixed menu of jobs that the robots are steadily chewing through, and soon there’ll be none left for us. Economists call this the lump of labour fallacy.

The reality is that machines simply free us up to focus on new, more productive work. Work that is often more comfortable and rewarding. And work that is often very difficult to imagine in advance – who could have predicted even ten years ago that ‘social media manager’ would be a real job?

So the likelihood is that these platforms will bring with them new jobs. And while predicting what those roles will be is a mug’s game, we can hazard a well-informed guess about the skills they will require.

Above all, it seems clear that digital literacy will become a core skill for earthmovers. Whether you’re operating a drone to gather survey data, importing that data into software to generate 3D site models or configuring an autonomous machine to grade a road, the tools you use will feel much more like driving a computer than driving a car.

There is no escaping that this will be an uncomfortable transition for some.

Future employers will expect their workforce to be equipped to operate in a data-rich environment, where tasks run on information not brute force. This is very different to the expectations of today’s construction workers, who are still mainly trained to work physically, not cognitively.

It also requires a very different skillset to what our training system is geared to deliver. The challenge for us now is to wrap our heads around what it means to train constructions to work with machines that harness information rather than energy.