Last Updated May 23, 2017 · Written by Rob Schneider
It's kind of nice to think that tradesperson's will always be needed. New technology may be changing that. Some trades may become redundant as technology and robotics make their skills obsolete. Which trades may change and disappear in 20 years? You may be surprised by the technologies that are already available and threaten traditional trades.
In order to understand how trades might change in 20 years, you need to know a little bit about 3D printing. Surprisingly, the technology has been with us since 1983. It was expensive then and little understood. Today, desktop 3D printing applications are available and businesses everywhere are experimenting with it.
3D printing begins with a computer program. It's basically like a CAD (Computer Aided Design) program, with all the details about an object written into the program. Depending on what is being built, a robotic machine reads the program and creates the object. 3D printing has been used by industry for decades. Today, it is being taken out of the laboratory and into the real world.
As is true of any new technology, there are pros and cons to 3D printing. The pros include the ability to create complex designs, customisation, lower fixed costs and less waste. Some of the cons include higher costs for large production runs, fewer materials choices, limited strength and less precision. Developers are working on minimising the cons. In time, 3D printing may replace workers in most manufacturing and even building trades.
3D printing sounds futuristic, but it's here today and has already shown itself to be effective. What trades have already been affected by it? Only a handful of companies are experimenting with 3D printing, but their successes are pointing the way towards a more robotic future.
Bricklaying seems to be a specialised skill. A good bricklayer can lay up to 300 bricks a day. A team of bricklayers can construct a house in a matter of weeks. Bricklaying may become a redundant trade if current trends continue. A company called Fastbrick Robotics has created a robot that can lay up to 1000 bricks per hour and do the job as well as a professional bricklayer.
This is just the beginning. The company wants to improve their bricklaying robot and build a house within three days. They call their robotic bricklayer Hadrian X and hope to transform the way we build brick homes. This is not pie-in-the-sky technology. Hadrian X is operational today.
Hadrian X is not the world's only robotic bricklayer. The Mirror in the U.K. reports on a U.S. robotics company that has a bricklaying robot that can lay up to 3000 brick per days. It is called SAM ( for Semi-Automated Mason). SAM is built by a company called Construction Robotics. According to the article, SAM is already having an impact on bricklaying in the United States. The same article mentions Fastbrick Robotics and says Fastbrick's robot can build a 4-bedroom home in just two days.
A Chinese company, WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, claims to have built 10 houses in a single day using a 3-D program and cement. Granted, they were single floor dwellings and weren't that large, but no concreting company could build that many homes of any size in a day.
WinSun's head office is in Shanghai. They built the 10 homes out of recycled materials, but that's not their only claim to fame. They have also built a 6-storey apartment building and a highly detailed home using their technology. The company uses a giant robotic machine that reads CAD drawings and makes houses or apartments that are perfectly to scale. They also pride themselves on using recycled materials that save 60 percent of the materials typically needed to build a house or apartment complex.
Cabinet makers in large joineries are having to learn a new skill. Using a CAD program, the dimensions of cabinets can simply be entered into an Excel spreadsheet or other easy-to-use program. CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines read the dimensions and cut materials to exact sizes. Some CNC machines already in use include:
The CAD programs can go beyond simply cutting to size. More sophisticated programs can cut timber or metal to exact sizes and even pre-drill holes. If complex shapes are needed, another machine can reproduce them.
The programs are so sophisticated, they can even do the costing of the materials. This eliminates guesswork and gives a joinery or factory builder an exact materials cost.
Even smaller joineries and cabinet makers are starting to use these programs. Almost anything that can be done by hand can be recreated using a CAD program and equipment connected to the program. Do you want to recreate a component of a period chair? Special woodcarving equipment is available that can quickly reproduce it.
CAD programs in cabinet making are already in use and many kitchen manufacturers advertise positions for cabinet maker CAD jobs. While a knowledge of cabinet making is required, the cabinet maker is no longer needed to use the machinery.
Builders of the future may no longer be using saws and hammers. Factory built components are already a reality. In many cases, workers in these factories use CAD programs and CNC machines to create components. Walls, joists and other components are shipped to a building site and builders use cranes to put them in place.
Factory built homes are already a reality. Some companies offer both standard designs or can create a custom design for you. Construction time is slashed from months to weeks and the cost of a prefabricated house can be lower than the cost of a custom built home.
While automated building hasn't caught on yet, in 20 years, it may become the standard way to build a home.
No one knows what the future holds in store for us, but advancements in CAD, CNC and robotics are likely to replace tradies as we know them in 20 years. We already have concrete pouring and bricklaying robotics. These machines are already so precise, they can read plans and create the shell of a house or apartment building. The completed building has door and window openings. All the builders need to do is add doors, windows and other components.
In the future, robotics may replace builders and cabinet makers altogether. They may even start doing plumbing and fitting electrical wiring. While this sounds futuristic, it's worth remembering that even captains of industry didn't anticipate laptop computers. In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM said, "I think there is a world market for about five computers." Almost everyone has a computer in their home today.
Automation is a fact of life today. We already have automated gardening equipment, robotic lawn mowers and other automated technologies. Every advancement in technology creates challenges. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, the Luddites feared jobs would be lost. They were right, but new jobs became available to replace the jobs that were lost.
Perhaps in the future, our tradies will be working on computers rather than on the job site. According to an article on news.com.au, a company called Contour Crafting at the University of Southern California (USC) has already constructed a building system that uses robotics to build a house in a single day, including conduits for plumbing and electricity. We will still need the specialised skills of tradespersons, but they won't need to do the labour when they have a robot or robotic arm to do the work for them.