In 2019, barely aged 16, climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the UN Assembly in New York to call the World leaders back to their responsibilities on climate action. Two years earlier, the hashtag #MeToo had gone viral and launched a global movement to empower sexually abused people. And back in 2007, U.S. astronaut Peggy A. Whitson had already entered the Guinness World Records as the first woman to command the International Space Station. Despite such huge progress and social achievements, gender parity is today still far from being a reality. There is particularly one glass ceiling going unnoticed, which women haven’t broken yet: the one of the construction sector. According to recent estimates by the Committee for European Construction Equipment (CECE), they account for barely 10% of its workforce, and this share drops even more dramatically to 1-2% when it comes to manual tasks on job sites. Together with the aging of the working population, such a low rate of inclusion might soon curb the competitiveness of such a crucial industry. However, right where humans have so far proven incapable of tackling gender imbalances, unexpected help is now coming from robots.
Robotics is among the key strategies to take up these challenges, which were discussed in January at the 2023 CECE Congress in Chamonix, under the title “Embracing a changing society: diversity in construction”. “The gender balancing question is becoming evident at the societal level,” says its Secretary General, Riccardo Viaggi. “We are still a fairly traditional industry, where middle-aged men are statistically predominant. Multiple studies confirm that we would enormously benefit from increased diversity.” The reasons for this lack of inclusion are in many ways cultural and historical, but the nature of the work plays its part too: “Especially on job sites it is often quite physical, but thanks to robotics and artificial intelligence things are evolving quite quickly.” Contributing to this change are researchers like Sigrid Brell-Cokcan, director of the Chair of Individualized Production at the German RWTH University of Aachen, and representative at euRobotics for the Association for Robots in Architecture. “Robotics will certainly be one of the key technologies to tackle gender imbalances, short working careers, and injuries on job sites. The only question is if we will be speaking of fully autonomous machines or ‘human assistants’ like exoskeletons.”
Originally created for military use, patient mobility, and rehabilitation, exoskeletons are wearable suits with motorized joints, designed to give construction workers enhanced strength and protection, thus reducing physical stress and risk of injuries. “Having them on you is awesome. It’s like ‘wearing’ a robot and feeling much stronger”, says Christian Di Natali, a researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), one of the world's most renowned and pioneering robotics hubs. "Exoskeletons are not meant to create supermen but if you have to lift heavy weights, for instance, they can reduce the perceived weight up to 30-35%, which means, in the case of a 20 kg cement bag, some 5 kg lighter." As construction is an industry where manual work often requires big efforts, exoskeletons can play a significant role in fostering inclusion. “The benefits are significant not only for health but also for gender rebalancing. Less physical stress means lower risks of injuries, but it also allows women to accomplish tasks which were traditionally reserved for men.”
Within the European project Beeyonders, Di Natali is in charge of developing exoskeletons, fitting the most common needs of the construction sector, which are now being monitored in several EU countries. “From Italy to Finland practices can be different. The challenge is to find the most suitable solutions to help everybody,” he says. Moreover, depending on their tasks, workers may be called to very different activities, impacting specific muscles or articulations. Crucial in taking up this technological challenge is the contribution of digitization and artificial intelligence. “Depending on what you’ll be doing – lifting weights, loading materials, or whatsoever –, it will set up an adapted support strategy to reduce your risk of injury. This is why we rely on two different kinds of sensors, aimed at both monitoring the worker’s motion and properly controlling the robotic system: because the latter has to understand and follow your movements very smoothly and in real-time to step in, and provide assistance, just when it’s needed.”
If research and international bodies are increasingly investing in exoskeletons it is also because they might reveal valuable in tackling two more interconnected problems: the lack of labour force and the aging of the working population. “We are one of the European industries with the highest median age: the over-55 group is the fastest-increasing one and the under 25s account for barely 8%,” says Viaggi. “Since there is no generational change, we need autonomous and semi-autonomous machines also to replace humans who will not be replaced by other humans.” If statistics confirm a lack of motivation by young people to work in construction, Brell-Cokcan is persuaded that robotics will help the sector to become more attractive for the digital natives. “Automatized machinery will be soon operated remotely, and with no effort, equally by men, women, and older workers. No need to be on dusty sites anymore, a joystick will do the job. And it’s already proven that workers handling joysticks are more motivated.”
Robotics is also gaining momentum in the academic world, with most architecture and civil engineering faculties having integrated them into their curriculum. “Each year, some 30 000 of their students enter the labour market,” says Brell-Cokcan. “And if in the past 10 years, the calls for change have gone unheard, the construction industry has now realized that robotics’ contribution will be crucial and is recruiting more and more personnel with robotics knowledge.” Despite some encouraging signs, Viaggi warns of a race against the clock: “Institutions must understand that our lack of labour force is a ticking bomb. We need a real paradigm change and Europe is clearly not doing enough.” Robots can be part of the solution, stresses Di Natali, but will never be a threat to the job market: “Artificial intelligence is not intelligent enough yet to replace humans. Research is advancing very fast, but we are still the best robots on Earth, and reaching our level of complexity is far out of reach.”
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