It’s expensive putting up buildings. There’s a considerable amount of time-consuming labour requiring a variety of skilled trades. Construction Robotics, a WNY startup, is revolutionizing the way brick buildings are constructed by bringing automation technology to a task which has traditionally been the exclusive domain of skilled tradesman: bricklaying.
Uniland and Brawdy Construction held a demonstration out in Amherst today to showcase Construction Robotics’ Semi-Automated Masonry (SAM) system to a mixed crowd of journalists and builders. Brawdy is considering purchasing one of these units for a cool $500K, which would make it the first company in New York to utilize one of these machines in a production setting.
While industrial robots have been successful of taking over some semi-skilled tasks in structured environments like the factory floor, this type of technology represents a new breed of industrial robot that can perform productive functions outside in the “real world”.
The SAM is a machine that applies mortar to bricks & sets them in place with a robotic arm, laser level, and host of complementary computer-based technologies. It should be pointed out that SAM is a “semi-automated” robot, and is representative of the fact that construction robots still have a long way to go to replace humans. The SAM works as part of a team, with 1-2 bricklayers working behind to clean & tool the mortar joints, and occasionally replace a brick. Bricks also need to be periodically loaded into the machine, which are being placed at a rate of 200 an hour. The company sees the robot as complementing human labour, not replacing it – SAM does the heavy lifting (laying the brick) while the skilled masons inspect, clean and finesse the finished product. This could be classified as a “disruptive” industry innovation, as bricklaying has not evolved much since the beginning of time.
I enquired as to the business case for the SAM, which has to be an important consideration for anyone investing $500K in an unproven, first-generation piece of technology. Scott Peters, the co-founder of Construction Robotics, estimates it will pay for itself in anywhere from two to three years with productivity gains and labour savings. From a business perspective, that’s a no-brainer for a capital expenditure of that size, but might be tad optimistic. The truth is, nobody really knows because no one has had one that long. They were just invented, right?
While return-on-investment (ROI) is definitely one consideration, the SAM is also addressing the skilled trades shortage the industry has been facing. Ryan Glenn of Brawdy Construction indicated that it’s getting increasingly difficult to find bricklayers, as many of the younger workers are eschewing the physically demanding trade. As any economist will tell you, this type of skills shortage will over time drive labour rates up, further enriching the payback equation. Ironically, construction robotics like the SAM may even attract young people back to bricklaying, as robotics is seen as an attractive and leading-edge technology. The concept itself really seems to hit a sweet spot in addressing a host of issues.
Construction Robotics was accepted into Start-Up NY earlier in the year, the program introduced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo two years ago to lure business to the state, help fledgling startups, and assist existing businesses within the state to expand. The program gives growing or relocating businesses a host of tax breaks in return for capital investments on the assumption it will generate long-term job growth.
Specifically, firms accepted into the program can operate completely tax-free in areas owned by colleges (the company affiliated itself with Finger Lakes Community College to join the program) . Construction Robotics is one of roughly twelve firms in the Finger Lakes region participating.
Ah, but back to the demonstration. Let’s talk about the geek factor here – it’s mesmerizing to watch, and a tad creepy seeing that android arm lay down those bricks in such a human-like manner. While the press conference rolled on, most eyes were glued to the SAM as it continued to build a perfect brick wall in the background. You have to see the video to appreciate it. Each brick is measured before placement to ensure it goes exactly where the last one left off, and a sophisticated laser-levelling system compensates for all the imperfections. The real magic here is that precision robotics have finally made it to the construction site. And this is only the start.
Construction Robotics was started in 2007 out of a trailer located off Route 96 in Victor, New York. It has since grown to a fully-functional factory, where they hope to build 4-5 per year, at least to start. The sale to Brawdy Construction would be considered a major development for the fledgling company.
All photos provided by Bruce Haydon