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Sun 14 Jul 2019 11:42 AM

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Video: Why automate, when labour is inexpensive?

"Technology is an enabler, but not the solution," said Denis McNelis, Engineering Manager at Bam international.

The $313 billion construction sector in the UAE, which employs approximately 8% of the country’s workforce, is undergoing tremendous digital transformation. However, the transformation is taking place differently at different stages.

“We’ve got the design stage, fabrication stage, off-site stage and then the on-site stage. Automation in the on-site stage is particularly challenging," said Denis McNelis, Engineering Manager at Bam international.

"When you are doing your preparatory work for delivery to site and you’re planning, automation could come into play in those environments because the investment is worth the return. When you are on-site, it is very dynamic. In the region, weather will affect you. If it’s too hot, you won’t be able to do anything. Technology struggles with temperature. Humans are much more adaptable so they can work in environments that are much more difficult”, he explained.

Skilled vs unskilled labour

According to McNelis, labour is always going to be needed and will never be replaced. However, their roles and the way they are expected to work will change. Definition of skilled and unskilled labour force is going to change to a point where all employees working on a construction both on and off site will have to be skilled personnel. In fact, Managing Director of Korn ferry, Jonathan Holmes had predicted that the UAE is going to experience a skill gap worth $50 billion if organisations continue focussing heavily on technology as opposed to human labour.

“For every revolution of technology, the workforce doesn’t disappear. What happens is that they end up having to work in a different way. So what is happening in the industry is that on-site is a skilled labour force. But it is viewed as an unskilled labour force from a technology point of view. What is happening is we are doing more complex buildings. The skill is how you get the information to them and the acceptance of that skillforce on how to interpret this information”, he explained.

Retraining and upskilling

Projects that extensively use 3D and other such  technologies require their on-site staff to be trained to understand the technology. Paul Wallett, Regional Director of Trimble Solutions explains, “There’s the existing labour force so it is about retraining on new technologies. There are 3D modelling technologies. But to move them from a traditional 2D to 3D requires training. Any new technologies that you put in place, rather than just getting rid of labour force (you know, nobody wants to lose their job) you have to be making use of the people that we have hired. Retraining that labour force to do something else is a big part of the remobilisation and reskilling of labour force”

Another aspect of this is that a huge portion of the existing labour force is retiring. While passing down the knowledge is going to an important aspect of upskilling, the new generation of recruits come in with an immanent technical skillset.

And then there is the question of if we really need all of this labour force, just because we can afford it. “Inherently we see a vast amount of labour on the construction, but do we need that amount of labour? If we look at other areas like the Europe or US where the cost of a tradesman is very high,  they are going to look at better utilisation of the people on site as it is added expense. So optimising when the labour needs to be on the job site and making better use of individuals is important”, he said.

(Source: YouTube channel)