Thriving in the fourth industrial revolution

Automation of simple M&E tasks will free up engineers to develop innovative zero carbon designs, argue CIBSE’s Carl Collins and Jagannatha Reddy

The current drive to digitise the construction industry corresponds to the automation of tasks that has been going on for thousands of years. This started in ancient history, with the advent, for example, of simple levers and wheels to lift stone or bring the harvest in on carts.

Mechanical automations reached a turning point in the middle of the last millennium with the introduction of the printing press and, later, the automatic loom. These inventions turned tasks that were previously human-centred into ones that could be done by fewer, less-skilled people, resulting in unemployment for the previously well-paid and highly skilled jobs of scribe and weaver.

The Luddite movement of the 19th century sought to protect the highly skilled jobs from the rise of the demonic machines. This concept is now refuted by the ‘Luddite fallacy’ – that automating tasks does not lead to less employment, but actually creates more jobs than it removes. As people can do more with less, we are free to pursue other tasks and pastimes, which, in turn, creates jobs to support these activities.

How is this reflected in the digitisation of the construction industry? We are all aware that many of the design and construction tasks previously done by skilled designers and contractors are now being done by machines, whether that be analysing building physics, sizing pipes or surveying progress on site, which can all be carried out with computers and their ancillary devices. So, what of the design engineer, the pipe fitter, and the surveyor? If machines are doing all the work, what do they do?

Well, the machine is only as good as the information it is fed. Take the experience of the pipe fitter, for example; they are required to make the machine perform at least as well, so the task moves from the site to the factory, where the pipe fitter can produce prefabricated sections more quickly, cleanly and accurately.

Who are the new Luddites?

In 2018, we were all discussing digitisation within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry, and a few of the key buzzwords were robotic process automation (RPA), digital twin, internet of things (IoT), and digital site survey.

In 2020, it all came into reality, with prototype and pilot projects on which we can see fixed-mindset engineers/supervisors (20th-century Luddites) opposed to digital initiatives. No technology will replace technical judgements, but it can help. Let’s see how digitisation increases the job opportunities with the current Covid-19 situation.

RPA, for example, will help engineers to automate repeated tasks – it doesn’t mean RPA will replace your job; you are still required to develop, validate and make sure RPA is working as it should.

Similarly, digital twin with IoT will help the facility management (FM) and operations and maintenance (O&M) teams predict issues/faults on site – even working from home during the pandemic. Digitisation secures your job and makes this ‘business as usual’. Moreover, it has increased the demand of FM and O&M roles in the current Covid-19 situation.

Mechanical, electrical, public health, fire and security technicians, supervisors and engineers can diagnose and resolve issues remotely, with minimal physical presence. Asset management teams will get the bigger picture of asset performance, where the engineers can monitor and control assets remotely.

As Charles Darwin showed, it is not the strongest or the most intelligent of a species that survives, but the one that is most adaptable to change.

Developing the scripts for 3D modelling and automating the engineering calculations will not replace the BIM modellers’ and design engineers’ jobs; it will increase the efficiency of individual tasks and improve overall performance. BIM modellers and engineers are still required to develop, run and validate the scripts and automated calculations.

Automation through digitisation allows the contractor/consultants/clients/business owners to run their business as usual, which contributes to the country’s economy. There is no job threat as such with automation and digitisation. Embracing the technology increases the opportunities during this fourth industrial revolution (automation through digitisation). In fact, during the Covid-19 pandemic these have been the most demanded roles in the market.

Only those who do not allow technology to assist in what they do will be seen as the new Luddites. This is not intended to be a disparaging reference – it is a reflection of the parallels between where we were, where we are, and where we need to be.

As Charles Darwin showed, it is not the strongest or the most intelligent of a species that survives, but the one that is most adaptable to change.

What future does our history point to?

As we have seen throughout history, every advance is met with resistance, because it is human nature to fear change. In almost all instances, however, the change has come to pass and those resisting it either change tack and embrace the change, or they become irrelevant to the mainstream economy.

Some traditional methods usually persist, but these are either curios or heritage industries. They will not support the bulk of construction jobs. Also, with the world changing at pace, we know there will be a lot of construction work to be done to refocus the ways we work, rest and play.

Automation through digitisation will be the key to unlocking the amount of work we need to do with a dwindling workforce. It will also leave the designer, the analyst and the contractor free to do the work that machines can’t yet do: the artistry of engineering and construction, the innovative ideas that will help our low carbon future – basically, all the interesting stuff that we have no time to do now. Sounds good to me.