Automation in Construction

Construction is possibly a curious exception to typical legal and political restraints. Most of the legal and political rules already are and will continue to be environmental and will deal with matters like energy efficiency and waste disposal. Automation should facilitate compliance with these growing regulations which already influence how construction is being done in the U.S.

Expect theatrics over job losses and promises of worker re-training, but political and legal restraints to a construction industry that’s faster, safer, more environmentally friendly, and perhaps even a little cheaper will not be a worry – and legislation may even be designed to be as ineffective as possible.

construction, men on scaffolding.

In the early 70s automobile manufacturers in North America toured Japanese plants like Toyota and got a rude wake up call. Automation was already well in progress in Japan. As a result, over the next few decades, the North American and European auto sectors would also be transformed, along with the rest of manufacturing as well as the agricultural sector.

In fact, according to McKinsey, it is estimated that productivity in the U.S. in manufacturing increased 8-fold between 1947 and 2010, and in agriculture the increase in productivity was 16-fold, twice that of manufacturing.

Construction, you ask? According to McKinsey, productivity in construction increased marginally over the same period in America. So, while automation and robotics have begun to appear more frequently in construction since 2010, the industry is way behind agriculture and manufacturing.

And a big part of the reason for construction’s stagnation isn’t a bricklayer with a bad hangover, but rather poor planning by the architects, engineers, managers, and owners. As renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said:

You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledgehammer on the construction site.

Frank Lloyd Wright

So, as you read our survey of automation in construction, think of robotics, AI and machine learning as a powerful set of tech “erasers” that can help avoid the costly mistakes typical of all too many construction projects.

Overview of the Construction Industry right now in the United States

Industry Snapshot

Currently nearly 7.9 million workers are employed in construction in the U.S. and almost 11 million in direct employment because of construction, with around 12% of them belonging to a union. There are a large number of small businesses, usually local contractors, along with a fair number of mid-sized companies and a select group of large construction companies.

We need to ask why the construction industry has been relatively slow to automate although this is changing. In other words, why is it taking so much longer for automation to advance in construction compared to manufacturing, for example?

  • Conditions between construction sites varies a lot more than does the condition inside a factory in Korea, South Africa, or Kentucky. Soil, climate, infrastructure, and especially energy and communications impact a construction site more than they do a factory. Standardization is therefore harder to achieve.
  • Getting advanced equipment used in robotics as well as the technical assistance needed to use them to where the site is, can be challenging given the variety of possible on-site conditions.
  • The supply chain – including knowing when each stage of the construction should occur – is challenging at a construction site. Sufficient materials have to be present in an area where space is at a premium and where conditions make the safe storing of those materials difficult. Making sure the right materials arrive in the right place at the right time can be an overwhelming task.
  • Old habits die hard, and contractors often bill for more hours than those worked using old tricks like buddy-punching (having a co-worker clock you in and out when you’re not on site). Contractors want to delay facing automated time monitoring, although many in fact are now adapting or will soon have to.
  • Some construction workers still have a rugged risk-taking attitude that is often a liability rather than an asset, causing mistakes and creating delays, as well as harmful accidents.
  • However, the biggest reason for delays and cost-overruns in construction is often the fault of architects, planners, owners, and designers’ mid-project modifications. Think of it as a vicious cycle: the project leadership issues written directions which the project managers, including architects and engineers, misunderstand. This causes mistakes in the architectural and engineering blueprints which then have to be corrected at great cost and loss of time.

Another key aspect of construction is retiring trades people. Not enough younger electricians, industrial plumbers, masons and concrete workers, metalworkers, and glaziers are being trained in colleges or apprenticeship programs and the industry is facing a looming shortage of skilled, experienced workers. Additionally, as will be clear at the end of this blog, skilled construction workers will increasingly need tech skills not previously required.

Automation can help with most of these problems.

The industry is currently run by a mix of large and small-to-mid size businesses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2022 there were over 900,000 companies in the United States in construction. That means a lot of small companies – local contractors for example – along with a number of mid-sized companies and a few large construction companies.


Here are the Top 10 Construction Companies as of 2022 in the United States:

RankingCompanyAnnual Revenue
1The Turner Corporation$14.3 billion
2Bechtel$12.9 billion
3Kiewit Corporation$10.7 billion
4STO Building Group Inc.$9.5 billion
5Fluor$8.8 billion
6The Whiting-Turner Contracting Co.$8.4 billion
7DPR Construction$7.5 billion
8Skanska USA$6.4 billion
9Clark Group$6.3 billion
10AECOM$6.3 billion


Given that the U.S. construction industry was estimated to be around $2.7 trillion in 2022, this means the top 10 construction companies only accounted for around 3.5% of the total market. In other words, there’s lots of room for consolidation, and automation can have an impact on that by standardizing many elements of building and housing construction.

Approximate Employment Numbers

CountryTotal Construction employeesAs percentage of total workforce
Global300 million9.4%
U.S.10.8 million 6.8%
China81.8 million10.9%
Canada1.6 million8%
Australia1.1 million8.7%
EU18 million8.4%
India60 million13.3%
U.S. Source  EU Source  Canada Source  Australia Source  China Source  India Source  Global Source

Once automation really takes hold in the industry – and we’re just getting started – these numbers will fall dramatically. Not only that, but the technical abilities required to work alongside the robots and AI-powered dashboards will mean a construction worker will need a whole new set of both hard skills (how to interact with advanced technology) and soft skills (how to collaborate effectively while being monitored by machines).

What is the main objective of the Construction industry, including the growth model, right now?

  • Keep up with ever-increasing environmental regulations requiring careful control of materials used and of disposal of waste materials.
  • Reduce Construction Re-Work, which is when errors made means tasks have to be done over. This involves a waste of time, resources, and money.
  • Complete projects on time and on budget, whether a major infrastructure project like an airport, or something very focused, like a kitchen renovation.
  • Reduce accidents which can slow down a work project.

What is the current investment in automation in this industry?

No investmentLow investmentModerate investmentHigh investmentFull automation
Most tasks performed manually or with little automationAutomation limited to only a few areas or processesAutomation in wider range of areas & processes – more integrated into daily operationsAutomation widely adopted & integrated into most areas & processes yielding significant improvements in productivityAlmost all tasks & processes automated with humans focused on maintenance and supervision of automated systems
N/ALocal Contractors and some Mid-Sized CompaniesMid-sized and Most Large Construction CompaniesA few specialized areas within large companiesN/A Will occur when construction is modular with all components built in factories and assembled on site.
investment in automation in the construction industry

How will the industry start changing? What to look out for?  

First off, automation in construction means any task in the industry previously done manually that would now be done, or is being done, by a machine, software, or any other technology. So, let’s list some tasks that robots can already do:

  • Lay bricks up to 3 times faster than skilled bricklayers.

Watch SAM (Semi-Automated Mason) lay bricks here.

  • Dig trenches and crush rocks autonomously.
  • Pour concrete using technologies like 3D Printing.
  • Weld pipes and other steel/metal structures.
  • Excavate and prep a site using autonomous bulldozers equipped with GPS or similar technology.
  • Use facial recognition technology to monitor and assess worker performance and adherence to established procedures.
  • Survey a construction site to identify risks and provide a risk rating on individual contractors.
  • Use photographic data to rate the riskiness of a construction site and to identify specific problems that need correcting to avoid accidents.
  • Use robotic monitoring of large construction sites to identify progress – or lack of – in the sties various areas and identify where labor or resources should be devoted.
  • Use Reinforcement Learning to learn by trial and error through studying the mountains of data on previous/existing construction projects.
  • Use AI-run generative design 3D Models to identify and solve clashes between the plans used by the architectural teams, the engineering teams, and the construction teams. This makes sure the workflow of a construction site is as efficient as possible.
  • Use Neural-Network AI to analyze and predict cost overruns based on data about:
    • Size of project
    • Type of contract
    • Competence of the managers in charge
  • Use Drones to do a number of dangerous, high-up, jobs in conjunction with autonomous cranes. Stringing high-voltage cables; taking supplies up to the top of a building, moving components to where they’re needed. Yes, elevators will still be used, but in conjunction with drones and robotic cranes controlled by remote operators.

What will this industry look like when automation is fully complete?

In construction the future is modular. Every home and building will have all its components built in a factory – the way a toilet in your bathroom is built elsewhere – and assembled on site. The walls, the floors, the roof, the windows, the doors, the door and window frames, mechanical – electrical – plumbing (MEP) components, and just about everything else that goes into a building will all have been built to spec in a factory to be quickly assembled at the site. The only exception to this would be the foundation and grading of a structure, which would involve robotic machines preparing a site while monitored by a few skilled operators.

Timeline – Approximately when will this industry be fully automated? 

As our focus is America, we can provide a reasonable projection concerning automation in construction. However, given that fully automated means modular construction being the principal method for every type of construction site, we need to be patient with regard to our timelines. Remember:

  • The construction industry will have to massively consolidate to have larger firms with the required capital to invest heavily in automation – especially modular automation.
  • Remaining smaller and mid-sized construction companies will increasingly use robotics and AI as prices fall and productivity increases. This takes time – perhaps a decade or two.
  • However, the spread of automation will quickly gather momentum and accelerate starting in the next couple of years (some would argue it already is gathering substantial momentum in specific construction markets like large-scale projects).

By 2030 – Local and laggard Mid-sized contractors will have moderate investment levels in automation. No one will have low investment anymore. More dynamic mid-sized companies and less adventurous large companies will have high investment in automation. A few leading large companies and pioneer mid-sized companies will be fully automated.

By 2040 – Only a few local and a handful of mid-sized companies will have moderate investment in automation. Most large companies will be fully automated and will require either high or full levels of automation from smaller companies they work with. The only larger companies that remain only highly automated will be regional exceptions to this.

By 2050 – The industry will be fully automated. All construction will be modular with a few specialized (and very expensive) local and mid-sized companies offering customized work with high levels of automation that complement the basic modular structure of the construction industry.

Possible political and legal restraints of automation of this industry  

Construction is possibly a curious exception to typical legal and political restraints. Most of the legal and political rules already are and will continue to be environmental and will deal with matters like energy efficiency and waste disposal. Automation should facilitate compliance with these growing regulations which already influence how construction is being done in the U.S.

Expect theatrics over job losses and promises of worker re-training, but political and legal restraints to a construction industry that’s faster, safer, more environmentally friendly, and perhaps even a little cheaper will not be a worry – and legislation may even be designed to be as ineffective as possible.

The Positive  

  • A safer industry.
  • A more energy efficient industry.
  • A more organized and less costly industry with more ability to finish projects on time and on budget.
  • A more environmentally friendly industry.
  • Standardized housing and buildings, which means far less people in developing countries will be living in wood or mud shacks with no plumbing.

The Negative  

  • Massive job losses among labor intensive construction jobs like bricklayers, carpenters, concrete workers etc.
  • Retraining costs to adapt the remaining workforce to much greater use of technology at any job site.
  • Standardization of housing and construction in general, which means the world will look even more similar than it already does.


  • George Laczko

    George Laczko, a Canadian entrepreneur, excels in legal services, online marketing, consulting, and tech. His innovative approach drives business growth and efficiency. Laczko George

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