Adapting for an autonomous future

One of the most exciting developments in the construction, agriculture and mining industries today is the introduction of autonomous machines. Tractors are piloting themselves through fields to plant, water and harvest crops, and massive, self-driving rock trucks can make their way in and out of mines safely, continuously optimizing their routes. Meanwhile, self-piloted earthmoving equipment is being developed to dig out foundations, and 3-D printers can be fed blueprints to generate buildings.

When autonomous equipment hits the mainstream, it will help businesses drive down project costs, accelerate timelines and make trade work safer. However, before these positive changes can take hold in the industry, project managers will need to learn how to strategically add autonomous machines to their fleets, create uptime for them and maximize returns on what will surely be large investments in autonomous equipment.

Today, growing peer-to-peer (P2P) equipment rental networks offers a model for the ways project managers can adapt procurement, planning and deployment strategies to prepare for autonomy.

Find the Right Fit

Businesses that can’t afford autonomous equipment outright may still find it cost-effective to rent these machines to backfill for labor shortages. Finding the right machine at the right price will likely prove difficult as autonomous machines slowly make their way into traditional rental businesses’ fleets, but project managers who want to experiment with autonomous equipment could find those machines on P2P networks sooner.

P2P networks already feature a wider variety of common and specialty equipment of all ages at lower rates than traditional rental yards can offer. This is because P2P networks don’t have to cover the same overhead costs as traditional rental businesses, and they connect renters with equipment owners who are states or countries away, widening the pool of available equipment for rent. Equipment owners also set their prices individually, so as autonomous machine owners look to increase uptime, renters will probably pay less of a premium on P2P networks than they would at traditional rental businesses.

Businesses should encourage their project managers to get familiar with P2P networks today so they can make smart recommendations as to when it will be the most cost effective to deploy rented autonomous equipment. As these project managers find more opportunities to deploy autonomous machines on their jobsites, the positive impact to project timelines and costs could even help them to increase profits and afford autonomous vehicles of their own.

Make the Math Work for You

The first businesses to purchase autonomous equipment (or those that already have) will struggle with the same core problem all contractors face: keeping machines on uptime as much as possible. Today, P2P networks help project managers to fight downtime for equipment they own by renting idle machines to other contractors who can’t or don’t want to make a purchase, but who perhaps can’t find equipment for the right price at traditional rental yards—or at all.

Renting machines to other contractors to create uptime helps project managers to offset costs associated with machine ownership, namely finance payments and maintenance. For autonomous machines that can (technically) be working 24/7, the impact of revenue from around-the-clock rentals could be enormous.

The autonomous foundation-digging machines mentioned above offer a great example for this model of ownership. These machines are expensive to own but can greatly accelerate land preparation across all of a large builder’s projects. Once they’re finished digging out foundations for their projects, managers can rent those machines to other builders near or far to keep the machine moving and bringing in additional revenue.

Know Autonomy’s Impact at Scale

The bottom-line benefits of P2P equipment sharing can be amplified by more sharing and further increases in machine utilization rates. As more businesses embrace P2P as a tool for increasing per-machine revenue, we’re likely to see fleet management become fluid—as soon as a machine has finished its job on one site, it will be sent to a renter.

Managing equipment this way can change the way contractors compete for work. Businesses using P2P to get the equipment they need can plan to spend less on equipment, helping them to lower cost projections and compete for larger projects. Businesses that already own equipment may also be able to lower their bids with the knowledge that they can continually generate revenue from their fleets. In both cases, sharing equipment helps businesses to reduce overhead by using their equipment more efficiently.

That efficiency will be key to the rollout of autonomous equipment, which will be expensive for any business to own and manage the same way they do today. To reap the rewards of deploying autonomous vehicles, businesses will have to adapt to sharing the equipment and the costs of that equipment.

The rewards are pretty great, too. First, and perhaps most obvious, autonomous machines can reduce labor costs while increasing work site output. Whether on a farm, in a mine or on a construction site, autonomous machines can work around the clock without needing breaks, meaning they can impact the bottom line from both sides: reducing costs and increasing revenue from output.

Autonomous machines will also save lives. In construction, agriculture and mining, transportation-related accidents or unintentional contact with equipment caused 57 percent of the 1,627 workplace fatalities recorded in 2015, the most recent year for which complete data is available.

Approach Change with People in Mind

When it comes to autonomy, the impact on jobs is impossible to ignore. We aren’t fully sure how autonomous technology will impact jobs in the trade industries, but today’s machines that can drive themselves are solving more labor problems than they’re creating (they’re still being supervised by humans with kill switches). For the foreseeable future, we can be certain that autonomous machines will need to be maintained by skilled technicians, and before that they’ll need to be manufactured on new lines which will run through plants that today’s workers still need to build.

Whether we expect them to eliminate jobs or create new ones, the fact remains that autonomous machines are coming. The business impact of autonomous machines being used at maximum efficiency is too great to ignore, so we must get more comfortable sharing equipment and adjusting to the new business strategies around-the-clock autonomous labor will require.