Robot brickies could help humans

Clay Technology magazine
,
15 May 2017

A new bricklaying technology could bring robotics and automation onto construction sites in the UK. Natalie Daniels reports.

By 2018, the Federation of Robotics, Germany, predicts that there will be around 1.3 million industrial robots working around the world. Manufacturers are already using robots in the automotive and mining industries and the UK construction sector could be one step closer to turning to automated bricklaying. With the ability to work at constant speeds with no breaks, days off or holiday and capable of lifting heavy loads without injury or tiring, the Semi-Automated Mason (SAM) robot, developed by Construction Robotics, USA, can lay more than 700 bricks an hour, working three-to-five times faster than human builders and could, surprisingly, help to bridge the skills gap. 

The SAM robot is capable of picking up bricks, applying mortar and placing them using a system formed of a conveyor belt, robotic arm and concrete pump. The robot is controlled and operated wirelessly and uses a laser sensor to react to any movements or delays.

Construction Robotics built SAM after exploring areas of construction where repetitive movement is required. The team began looking at masonry because of the repeated process used in the construction of commercial buildings. Zak Podkaminer, Operations Manager at Construction Robotics, said, ‘SAM’s purpose is to bring intelligent technology to the construction site. The construction industry has changed somewhat over the past few years, but it hasn’t been significant. Bringing automation into construction has always been a challenge because you are not producing the same building over and over again. We wanted to design a system that would seamlessly fit into the current construction process.’

USA and UK market

In the USA, the majority of masonry is laid using a hydro-mobile or mass climbing work platform. ‘We have designed the SAM to work off a mass climber. Masons will build a brick wall up to 1–2m then use the scaffold and build upwards from there. It is the same process when using SAM, but this time you would bring in the scaffold with SAM on it, designed to work with the mason to lay bricks.’ The robot does not eliminate the need for masons on construction sites, as bricklayers are still needed to load bricks and mortar into the system and clean up the remaining mortar from joints after the bricks are laid. A bricklayer is also required to handle worksite setup, lay bricks in difficult areas and improve the aesthetic quality of the masonry. ‘A mason would work alongside the SAM to dictate how all the bricks are laid out, monitoring the wall quality, the cooling of bricks and the installation of wall pipes, and then a labourer is required to feed the mortar and brick,’ said Podkaminer. The company estimates that overall labour costs for bricklaying projects could be reduced by around 50%.

Like the UK, the USA is also facing a shortage of skilled workers entering the industry. Podkaminer points out that the SAM robot is not designed to replace skilled workers but help to close the gap, stating that ‘there seems to be fewer people entering the skills trades because young people are choosing higher education routes. The current workforce is ageing and the younger generation are just not entering the industry. We are trying to make the current workforce more productive and extend their careers.’

The SAM robot has its limits in terms of site-specific locations. ‘If you require a mass-climbing platform to build up the brick wall then you can use SAM. However, where construction projects are not using these platforms then a construction company wouldn’t be able to use this technology,’ said Podkaminer. 

The robot has been in development for eight years and has been trialled at multiple construction sites across the USA. Construction Robotics now plans to visit the UK to explore the market further. ‘There are currently five SAM robots working in the USA, at sites in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Washington DC, Tennessee, Maryland, Wyoming and a trial robot in New York helping to build hotels, supermarkets and schools. But if a construction company wanted the SAM robot in the UK then we would make arrangements for that.’

To watch how the SAM robot operates, visit bit.ly/2q4DXKQ