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Exoskeleton workers: How labour tech could transform industry

Ashley Perry, Senior Project Manager in JLL’s Project Management team, sets out his views

​Innovative construction methods are progressing rapidly – but what role do builders have to play in the construction world of the future?

The vast majority of construction sites still feature workers using their hands and tools to create elements of buildings augmented by machinery and technology.

Contractors are already utilising software solutions to ensure budgets and programmes are met, delivering a secure return on investment.

At a managerial level, the allocation of resources for construction project management is essential to ensure work is delivered on time and on budget. With this in mind, it is vital the industry continues to look for new ways of enhancing human capabilities and relieving workers of repetitive tasks which would help reduce the strain on the industry.

Workers of the future
Looking ahead with optimism, it is possible to still imagine traditional construction workers as assemblers supported by specialist finishers for the visible detail on projects. This, of course, would be dependent on the continued growth of Design for Manufacture and Assembly, which fellow consultancies have been keen to support.

However, with an ageing construction workforce – especially among the most experienced and senior workers – it is conceivable that exoskeletons or physical augmented tools worn by the labourer might make their way onto sites.

“Technology such as exoskeletons will enhance instead of replace construction worker output”

For example, Ekso Bionics in the US has created an exoskeleton specifically for construction workers to enable them to continue physical aspects of the job that might have become problematic at a later age.

This clever piece of equipment will bear the weight of heavy construction tools with the aim of enhancing worker productivity, reducing employee fatigue and sick days and even lowering the likelihood of work-related injuries.

Exoskeletons could have the potential to broaden the available talent pool, with those who might have previously been deterred from entering the industry due to demanding physical requirements taking up construction site roles.

More technologically advanced working conditions may also encourage more apprentices and young people to choose a career in construction if its image is shifted to one that demonstrates an innovative place to work.

A new manufacturing approach
As has been seen in the automotive industry, there have been calls for construction to take a fundamental shift to its manufacturing approach.

Robotics firms, as mentioned, have some impressive innovations to help assist with elements of building construction. However, complex and specialist building requirements will necessitate construction labourers for the foreseeable future – especially in London, with its challenging sites and close proximity to adjacent buildings in many areas.

While we continue to see investment and success through BIM, for design co-ordination, accuracy and efficiency, as well as modular construction methods, it is great to see how the industry is looking specifically at workers in terms of safety and enhancing their capabilities and productivity.

Technology such as exoskeletons will enhance instead of replace construction worker output in the future and in my eyes, that’s something that should be encouraged and celebrated.

Ashley Perry is a senior project manager in JLL’s project management team and member of the Urban Land Institute’s Young Leaders Committee in the UK and Europe

As seen in Construction News