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The Future of Automation: A Glimpse into 2024 and Beyond

15 of February of 2024

As we look towards the near future, automation will play a significant role in shaping the way we live and work. This is particularly true for infrastructure companies such as construction, airports, highways, and energy sectors. These companies are striding to be at the forefront of innovation, leveraging innovative capabilities with the goal in mind to maximize safety, efficiency, and sustainability. From autonomous construction equipment to smart energy grids, the possibilities are becoming endless.  So, what might the future bring?

The Evolution of Automation across industries

Automation presents a unique opportunity for companies to create their own journey and vision on how they want to tackle it. Often small steps and exploration can set the base for value creation to customers and shareholders. In the construction industry, automation will grow in the next 5-10 years as we are already seeing large corporations conducting trials to validate the productivity impact. Key focus has been on validating those “low hanging fruit” technologies available in the market that can move the needle today, like operator assist technologies for Earth-moving activities .

Other disruptive yet slightly less mature technology like autonomous construction machinery, which would require more complex integrations both in hardware and software for full task completion and regulation process will present intrinsic challenges of “removing operators from the cab”, so in essence it will still take some time until we see fully automated and operational construction sites.

Other industries such as airports have explored automation as an opportunity for cost reduction, increased safety, increased customer experience, and overall process improvements (e.g. teleoperated ground service equipment, autonomous aircraft Tugs, etc.), allowing for the coordination of multiple vehicles at once. This can also lead on a reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, dedicate labor resources to other value-added tasks, and improving workers wellbeing by removing them from dangerous situations.

Also, across the highways industries, sensor data fusion combined with AI algorithms can support Departments of Transport across the world in the identification of road defects, efficient accident report that can save lives and overall improving the road network fluidity which will contribute to faster and more consistent transit times for both people and goods.

The State of the Art of automation in construction

Construction continues to have one of the biggest opportunities for automation across industries. According to Deloitte 2024 engineering and construction industry outlook article, in the coming years the construction sector will continue to grow and more so in US due to government infrastructure plans IIJA (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) and the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) which are set to deliver the largest reinvestment infrastructure and climate/energy-related in American history.

The CHIPS Act also would mean billions to flow into the U.S. manufacturing sector.  There is no doubt that these infrastructure plans will come with qualified construction staff shortage which can directly impact the bottom line and schedule of major multibillion-dollar plant projects.

With challenges come opportunities

Traditionally the mining industry has been exploring since 2013 disruptive technologies such as teleoperations and autonomous particularity around haulage. The sector is far ahead from construction party due to the nature of the large, remote sites. In the interview at northeastern Ontario gold mine, Sarah Loomis, Caterpillar’s AV Operations, said some customers have a 30% increase in productivity due to consistency using efficient paths for autonomous mining trucks.

Coming back to construction, as the industry continues to face additional challenges like low productivity, aging workforce and higher material costs, the early adoption of automation and digitization presents a solution for improved efficiency, safety, inclusiveness & accessibility thanks to technologies like remote operations.

On an interview during Trimble Dimensions event in 2022 “The fully autonomous job site is under constructionKevin Andrews Trimble Strategic Marketing Manager and Kevin Garcia GM for Civil Specialty Solution made a simile for construction equipment, like cars, will evolve from having assist features to being capable of task automation and eventually achieving task autonomy.

Starting with basic sensors required for operator assists solutions (i.e. blade and bucket controls), present small steps towards automation and are set to deliver considerable results in the short time. As OEMs and key tech firms continue to develop their roadmaps, focus must be put on the broader context of total job site autonomy, where multiple autonomous machines work together – this is when the opportunity would be great.

The article also suggest that fully autonomous job sites will not arrive overnight but in an ideal scenario where AI and neural networks were taking care of all processes, we could start looking at building an entire job site in a matter of seconds digitally before its event executed it in the field. Scenario planning could be run to calculate the number of shifts, number of people and machines needed, including how long it is going to take and how much it is going to cost.  Different options for execution could be presented depending on weather conditions and other factors affecting the site and customer needs.

We can slightly get a taste of these when looking at machine 3D control.  A lot of the work goes into the planning and creating the 3D model. Making a good effort at this planning stage makes the execution part much simpler.

What is required to get there?

Implementing these automation technologies would require a new set of skills, a new set of SOP – Standard Operating Procedures and in essence new ways of working. The industry’s attractiveness can rise quicker as younger generations are already used to play with technology through video games.

Entire companies and employees and their senior managers will need to embark on a complete change of mentality, such as running operational sites on a completely different manner, utilize labour staff in redesigned ways and event transition operators into supervisory roles – there will be a complete processes reengineering needed.

Figuring out a job site in terms of what each machine is doing per day and how inputs / outputs relate is key to reach full automation potential. Each machine will need a set of specific instructions on what exactly needs to be produced, where and when to go.

What has 2023 meant for development in the industry?

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) covers key sector automation developments during the past year in the article Will job sites ever become fully autonomous?. To name a few; SafeAI and Obayashi Corporation demonstrated a retrofitted autonomous Cat 725 articulated truck, while Shantui developed an unmanned dozer. Additionally, SRI International released a video on its prototype robotic excavator, Autonomous Solutions, Inc. (ASI) partnered with Epiroc Drilling Solutions on its Mobius autonomy platform for drills, and Trimble introduced its new automatic steering control for soil compactors.

Can ROI be justified for the industry?

Construction companies naturally work on very thin margins, implementing any sort of technology can only come hand in hand with an ROI evaluation. Automation entails CAPEX heavy investment; therefore, companies choose very carefully where it makes sense for them. If the technology is proven to move the needle, it will just naturally get implemented no questions asked.

Looking at Improved productivity and the ability to automate repetitive and systematic tasks, increasing the speed and efficiency of construction processes. (e.g. Excavator Machine Control technology can eliminate some unnecessary topography and stake out processes, including the need to use GPS Dozers in certain site areas).

Reduced costs, ability to reduce labor costs and increase cost-effectiveness (e.g. Connected P&E can help track work and get things done quicker). Enhanced safety, perform tasks in hazardous environments, reducing the risk of accidents and injuries to human workers (e.g., removing certain activities/teams from field can reduce risk factors).

Improved quality, deliver tasks with high precision and consistency, increasing the quality of work. (e.g., being able to measure quantity and quality in real time can save money on rework and support change requests justification when needed. Transformation of work this allows human workers to focus on tasks that add more value, transforming the nature of work in the construction industry.

Summary and final remarks

The roadmap to automation involves exploring the potential across various industries as there are many commonalities across the process for connectivity, control centres, AI and IoTs.

Conducting trials and proof of concepts presents an opportunity to validate the impact and de-risk launching highly intensive CAPEX programs that don’t deliver clear bottom-line results in the short- to medium time.

There is no doubt that technology has a cost, but it just needs to demonstrate the value, cost benefit to get implemented. Automation is here to stay and can only improve with time, always keeping human in the loop and enhancing their work capacity the quality of the finished job and most importantly increase safety.

The adoption of these technologies will not destroy jobs, but rather transform them, creating new opportunities in the industry. The construction sector as well as the above-mentioned sectors must continue raising the bar to the new technological paradigms and embrace these breakthrough innovations – the future is closer than ever.

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