The Weakest Link? Us.

Will COVID-19 Accelerate the Building Industry Automation Boom?

S.S. Saucerman / November 2020

I think it’s safe to say the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the construction industry upside-down. Each day brings new accounts of canceled building projects, postponed construction funding and tales of virus-related labor woes. This, of course, is on top of an industry already depleted by shortages due to workforce attrition and a general shunning of the construction trades by current generations. As governments, scientists and health organizations scurry to keep pace with—and hopefully corral—the virus, we construction folk are frantically scrambling to minimize the pandemic’s immediate effects on our company bottom lines and futures. We’re in a genuinely and historically scary time.
    
In my experience, I haven’t witnessed a time when managerial brain-trusts for contracting firms were more laser-focused on the present—that is, survival. Five-year forecasts, capital expansion plans and the company picnic can wait. Right now, it’s about keeping the doors open. But with this (wholly justified) preoccupation with all things here and now, I’d like to take a moment to consider the impact of the virus on our industry as a whole. How will the virus change the core of construction? I believe one inescapable ramification of the COVID-19 pandemic can be summed up with one word: automation.

Profit Is (Pick One): (1) Good (2) Bad
But let’s set this up. Say you’re a young, ambitious construction professional, bent on a managerial position in the not-so-distant future. In your quest for all things executive, you take the proper business courses and devour scores of business management books (mostly of the “vanity” variety) that spill off most chain bookstore shelves. In this way, you expose yourself to an array of business methods, management theories and profit-making strategies.
    
You find the books particularly alluring. You learn early on how to tell a good business book from bad: the back cover. Bad business books have a few, hastily scrawled and obviously coerced (some sort of deal was made) one-line testimonials from industry semi-potentates. Good business books will have an arty, black-and-white photo of a nattily attired author (from NYC) sitting on the corner of a hand-carved, dark, hardwood desk that the author has clearly never seen before today.
    
He/She will be staring directly and defiantly into the camera lens. Their hands will be 1) folded in their lap, 2) holding a pair of reading glasses or 3) petting a golden retriever. There will be (this is state law) a conspicuous and ornately framed photo of the author shaking hands with a prominent local politician somewhere in the shot. Now that you’re certain you have an unimpeachable source of information, you grab the nearest yellow highlighter and dig in.

Pearls of Wisdom and Other Juxtabranchial Excretions
Chapter one, of course, is all about the author and recounts his grueling, perilous struggle to the top of the corporate hierarchy (“I had to plead with Daddy for minutes!”).
    
Chapter two is where the work begins. First the author asks if you are truly serious about achieving success. This is important. There is no way this author is going to waste his trust fund allowance and a perfectly good ghostwriter on readers who aren’t serious! Once the author is assured of your worthiness, the veil is slowly lifted. With a grandeur unmatched by Napoleon’s coronation or a Kardashian tweet, the author unfurls the deeply guarded and mystical (this is going to change your life—really!) secret for achieving true and lasting success in business: “Set out to build the most efficient, effective and expedient product delivery network possible between yourself and your target customer!”
    
See? Now admit it: There is no way you would’ve thought of that on your own!
    
You turn the book over and shake it, certain you missed something. Then you pause for a moment to lament the $19.95 you sacrificed to the wind back at the bookstore. Still, undaunted—and clearly unable to discern value from vacuum—you soldier on. Your new delivery network should have a glitzy name, like “Client Distribution Paradigm (CDP)” or “Customer Conveyance Connivance (CCC)”—you know, something fun. You’re now also required by law (I believe this one is federal) to refer to your network forevermore only by its abbreviation. Abbreviations are more worthy of love than children.

Blind Pigs and Truffles
The balance of the book (in all its copy-and-paste glory) deals with the construction of your new network. And it’s here you make a startling discovery: You come upon a topic that may actually be construed (after plastic surgery and heavy makeup) to be of value. You’ve reached the part of the book that deals with unknowns. You remember the term because your business class instructors used to harp on the same thing. That can’t be a coincidence! So, you perk up again and start paying attention.
    
It turns out that when building a successful product/service delivery network, unknowns are the bane of network flow, the Darth Vader of stratagem streaming, the Kylo Ren of cognitive continuity, the Emperor Palpatine of system fluidity … Anyway, unknowns are bad—real bad. If you’re in a room with Hitler, Mussolini and Unknowns and you only had two bullets in your gun, you would shoot Unknowns twice. (Thank you, Michael Scott!) Unknowns are those volatile, unpredictable and erratic occurrences and events that spring up and have a nasty habit of making your profits go away.
    
So, in your quest to become the best manager you can, it now grows clear that the key to success lies in controlling as many of the steps in your delivery network as possible and minimizing (or completely eliminating) the dreaded unknowns. Sounds straightforward enough. So, you set about your task, but it’s not long before something interesting pops up. It seems the more you identify, analyze and address unknowns, the more you come to discover a disturbing thread—a remarkable commonality—that seems to be linking them all: a prominent human element.
    
You cross-check your results but the answer keeps coming out the same: the single biggest deterrent to achieving repeatable and reliable profitability is people.

But Some of My Best Friends Are Human!
Now don’t get me wrong, humans are great (I even married one!), but if we’re being completely honest, I think most of us would admit our species, even at our best, could stand a little improvement in the reliability and predictability departments. Knowing this makes the math easier: humans = less control; automation = more control. And so, from here until the end of corporate greed (aka “the end of time”), if there exists a reliable, cost-effective and morally acceptable alternative to the human element, there is sound fiscal justification for checking it out.
    
But this hasn’t happened yet, and you’re back at the office. It’s pre-virus and you’re a seasoned construction project manager doing your job to the best of your abilities. You’ve been with the firm 15 years now. You’re married, have 2.3 children, a 30-year mortgage, two car payments, and you have your eye on a new riding lawn mower at Blain’s Farm & Fleet®. Things are good. Life is routine and predictable. One of your many duties is to coordinate manpower out on the job site. Over the years, you’ve honed your skill and feel confident that you have come to understand the nuances of your company’s manpower deployment.
    
You know John the hypochondriac calls in sick a lot (actually his wife calls in; he’s one of those). You know Bill and Pedro don’t like each other (it goes way back). You know who your go-to guys are when you need someone to travel, and you know to keep Richie away from clients and inspectors because he has a big mouth. It takes a little managerial energy, sure, but it’s manageable. It’s good. But it’s a little too good for fate. So, just for fun, fate crash-lands a blazing, unannounced, multi-megaton meteor labeled COVID-19 onto your world. Fate thinks he’s funny, but he’s not.

Man Plans, Nature Laughs
In what seems less than an instant, the virus rips your daily routine into rags. Logistics turn into nightmares. Fear, uncertainty, hesitancy and misinformation cloud every decision, and absenteeism starts to spike. In a flash, new safety protocols come crashing down on your project site and back at the office, the administrative brain-trust is failing to comprehend the myriad new legal ramifications reigning down on the company’s liability and exposure. All is chaos and confusion. The government and press are only making it worse, and every piece of advice offered up from “experts” is vague, nebulous and often contradictory. Your clients—the ones whose projects are now grinding to screeching halts—are starting to speak only through their lawyers.
    
Last week you were calculating your Christmas bonus. Today, you just finished uploading your résumé to Indeed.

We Need to Talk
What happened? How could your company have been so comically ill-prepared? But more importantly, what changes can we make to ensure this never happens again? Let’s jump ahead again, one year. The pandemic has passed and your firm has suffered an unprecedented hit to the books. You managed to make it through the layoffs and restructuring. A company-wide meeting is called, and the topic for the meeting is to be laser-focused: What aspects of the company need to change in order to mitigate (or alleviate) the negative effects of a future pandemic?
    
You’ve remained quiet for most of the meeting, but the thought you’ve been harboring for months now is pulsating in your head. You even know (from daily interaction) that others in the office are thinking the same thing. Finally, you realize no one at the table has the guts to state the painful but obvious truth. You steady your nerve, sit up and break in: “The only truly pragmatic defense against the negative impact of a future pandemic and/or disease is to, where possible, replace human workers with cost-effective and reliable automated alternatives.” There. You said it. The table is silent. They knew it too.
    
Of course, this is only one in thousands of construction industry firms that called similar meetings—and saw similar results. Yes, it’s cold, clinical, impassionate and contrary to everything that colors human empathy, but it makes business sense. And so, the attitudinal die is cast. Forever altered is the historically reflexive reliance and knee-jerk implementation of the human element when solving business problems. It’s not something to feel good about. It’s something that is required in a new technological age and (had I mentioned this earlier?) it’s something that is completely and utterly unstoppable.
    
The writing is not just on the wall, it’s all over the wall (and the back). Companies not on board the automation revolution will be left behind. Period. Even mom and pop operations will be forced to weigh the worth of automated brick laying machines, robotic drywall hangers, 3D printed construction techniques and artificial intelligence/machine learning applications in all areas of both design and construction. My advice would be to make it sooner rather than later. It’s not a transition that will happen overnight. It will require planning, acceptance and time—but it will keep you in the game.

Pandemic Positives
But you know something? I honestly don’t find anything profoundly depressing about us handing our lives over to piles of circuitry and software. We deserve a break. Besides, humans will be fine. We’ll find a niche; we always do.
    
If history has taught us anything, it’s proved that we homo-sapiens are an irritatingly scrappy bunch. Besides, we’ll be so busy developing fascinating and magical new innovations and applications that the overall societal effect will become less about replacement and more about positive transformation. So, I say, “Thanks, COVID-19, for forcing our automated hand! We’ll take it from here …”
    
Good luck and stay safe!

S.S. Saucerman is a retired commercial construction estimator and project manager who worked for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years.