The construction industry is turning to automation to address worldwide demand, increasing costs, and shortages of skilled labor. Robotic bricklayers promise to speed building, but the available technologies differ in application.
Perth, Australia-based Fastbrick Robotics claims that its Hadrian robot can lay 1,000 bricks per hour, significantly cutting the time for home building. However, Hadrian is still in prototype, and it could require reorganization of the construction site.
By contrast, Victor, N.Y.-based Construction Robotics‘ Semi-Automated Mason, or SAM, has already been laying a brick every 12 to 14 seconds, depending on the size of the brick. SAM is also available for sale or as a service. It can be used in existing work sites and is intended for the exteriors of larger buildings, rather than the structural walls of houses, as with Hadrian.
Fastbrick readies Hadrian to meet Australian demand
Fastbrick Robotics has spent AU$7 million ($5.4 million U.S.) over the past 10 years working on automated bricklaying. Perth’s building industry faced a backlog, with 30,000 new homes approved and only 5,000 human bricklayers, some of whom commanded high prices.
The company, operating as Goldwing Nominees, has filed patents in 11 countries, including Australia, China, and the U.S. It has also received funding from the Australian government and construction firms, including brick manufacturer ABN Group. Nearly 2 billion bricks are made a year in Australia, where they are a primary building material.
“Housing affordability in Australia is of critical importance and is at the center of political debate,” said Dale Alcock, managing director of ABN Group. “Fastbrick Robotics is at the forefront of construction automation, and its innovative robotic bricklaying technology has the potential to service the overwhelming demand for housing, quicker and cheaper than ever before.”
Fastbrick’s Hadrian 105 prototype can follow a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) plan without manual intervention and work around the clock. The robotic bricklayer was named after the Roman emperor under whose reign a massive wall was built in Britain. It is accurate to within 0.5mm and could erect the shell of a house every two days or 150 homes per year, said the company.
“The Hadrian reduces the overall construction time of a standard home by approximately six weeks,” said Fastbrick founder Mark Pivac. He added that he hopes the robot will actually “attract young people back to bricklaying, as robotics is seen as an attractive technology.”
DMY Capital Ltd. plans to acquire Fastbrick Robotics, and the deal is subject to shareholder and regulatory approval. Vineyard owner DMY Capital, formerly known as Dromana Estate, will buy 100 percent of Fastbrick and sell 150 million shares. New directors will be appointed to its board, including Pivac.
Fastbrick plans to use the additional capital to manufacture the Hadrian 109, which would be capable of house-scale bricklaying. Cygnet Capital Group expects to raise $3 million to fund Fastbrick’s commercialization efforts, first in Australia and then globally. The acquisition is expected to be complete by mid-October.
SAM gets to work in the U.S.
While Hadrian is still in development, Construction Robotics’ SAM has already been used at multiple job sites in the U.S. SAM is designed to be safe to operate near human co-workers and to stay on scaffolding while laying bricks about one every 12 seconds.
“A mason with heavier utility brick can lay on average 300 to 350 per day,” Zak Podkaminer, operations manager at Construction Robotics, told Robotics Business Review. “A human can lay 400 to 600 modular, or lighter, bricks in about 8 hours. SAM currently runs at a machine cycle time of about 200 bricks an hour, depending on the size of the wall and type of brick. Our goal is to improve our in-house software to get it up to 220.”
Podkaminer was skeptical of Hadrian’s projected speed. “We’ve known about their patents for some time now,” he said. “I don’t know if it assumes that every brick is identical — in the U.S., tolerances are 1/8 to 3/8 of an inch in all dimensions.”
“Another challenge is the mortaring. SAM uses the same mortar as what’s currently used and approved for job sites,” Podkaminer said. “Every time I see something about the future of construction, such as with 3D-printed buildings, it underestimates the complexity of the whole process, from design through approvals, building, and inspection.”
“We use commercial-grade, hardened components,” said Podkaminer. “We prefer to use as many off-the-shelf as possible, but we had to fabricate some ourselves, such as the carriage for the robot.
SAM’s brick conveyor comes from Dover Conveyor & Equipment Co., it uses StAubli robotics components, and Zeller Corp. supplies its electrical parts. Progressive Machine & Design LLC, a global Fortune 500 supplier, provides SAM’s automation design and assembly.
Because Hadrian uses a stationary boom, “the whole construction process revolves around this machine … not just the construction site, but also the architect, contractors, building inspector, etc.,” he noted. “With SAM, it doesn’t matter what the building is, because it follows current processes. A big barrier to entry to making [robots] work is understanding how people do things.”
Robotic bricklayers ready for sale
After seven years of development and testing, SAM was reduced in size from about 10 feet in height and 10,000 pounds in weight to 5 ft. and 3,300 lb., making it easier to move around the construction site. Construction Robotics hopes to sell three robots this year for about $650,000 each.
The National Science Foundation awarded Construction Robotics $1.25 million in grants. Construction Robotics also joined the Start-Up NY program, which uses tax breaks to encourage high-tech businesses to make capital investment in the state. It took a while to get through the application process, said Podkaminer, but Construction Robotics has benefited from the program.
SAM is designed to be operated by two trained workers. “Initially, we had too many people on the Hydro-Mobile platform, but once we got it down to fewer people, we operated better. The culture must change,” he said. “If a team makes a commitment to working with SAM, it can get a payback in two to four years.”
There is a large potential market for SAM because of an increasing shortage of skilled masons and growing demand in the U.S., said Podkaminer. There should still be more than enough need for human masons.
In addition to spending weeks to demonstrate SAM’s capabilities to potential clients, Construction Robotics is offering its robotic bricklayer as a service, with prices per day, depending on the size of the job and time requirements. Construction Robotics is also working with contractors on automating other aspects of the building process, said Podkaminer.