March 24, 2016      

Real estate is considered a sound investment because its value generally rises with demand from a growing global population. Construction robotics is benefiting from this demand, as painters and builders increasingly turn to automation to make up for labor shortages.

However, some construction robotics providers have learned the hard way that judging partners and knowing their markets are just as important as demand.

Endless Robotics Pvt. Ltd., which has developed products to automate painting, has raised $100,000 in pre-series funding from angel investors in the U.S., Singapore, and India.

The Hyderabad, India-based startup claims that its robots can apply coatings 30 times faster than a human painter. Analysts have said that chronic shortages of construction workers worldwide make that industry and real estate ripe for automation.

The potential market for painting in India could be as large as $3.6 billion, said Endless Robotics’ founders. About a third of those buildings are in cities, they noted.

Endless Robotics was founded last October by five graduates of the Birla Institute of Technology and Science and the International Institute of Information Technology in Hyderabad. They have focused on machine vision and offer their platform as a service.

“We will use the funds in product development, hiring talent, training service personnel, and piloting our service on small to medium-scale constructions,” said Srikar Reddy, one of Endless Robotics’ founders.

Endless Robotics is also working on a robot to paint building exteriors.

The global paint and coatings market, which includes automotive, residential, and commercial users, could grow from $110 billion in 2014 to $145 billion by 2020, according to Zion Research.

The market for robotic paint mixers, which mix often-hazardous substances, will experience a compound annual growth rate of 4.37 percent from 2014 to 2019, predicted Research and Markets.

Construction robotics build success

Blockleys Bricks Ltd. has invested £500,000 ($707,000) in packaging robots to scale up its operations to meet construction demand.

Brick House

Blockleys Bricks has invested in automation to meet global demand.

The Telford, U.K.-based brick maker, which is part of Michelmersh Brick Holdings PLC, reported that the investment in software and hardware has increased both its productivity and profits.

“The improved efficiencies give us an improved output with the same labor force we already had,” said CEO Frank Hanna. “It has also helped us to improve the product offering.”

Elsewhere in the construction industry, Fastbrick Robotics has upgraded its Hadrian 105 robot and completed validation testing. The company, which said its robot can lay 1,000 bricks per hour, plans to demonstrate its system soon.

In November, Fastbrick rose to the top of the Australian Stock Exchange, trading 94 million shares one day and 61 million on another. The Perth-based company was acquired by DMY Capital Ltd. last summer for $5 million.

Robots aren’t common yet at construction sites, but Hadrian isn’t alone. The SAM (Semi-Automated Mason) robot from Construction Robotics in Victor, N.Y., is already in use at sites across the U.S.

Investments in robotics have more than doubled in the past year, with 15 companies raising more than $89 million, according to CB Insights.

Setbacks force course corrections

Not all of the financial news around robotics has been positive. Alphabet Inc. (the umbrella of Google Inc.) and Boston Dynamics Inc. were found to be parting ways this past week.

Another example is Harvest Automation Inc., whose mobile robots are intended to move plants and tools around warehouses. It has been forced to lay off much of its staff after failing to find a logistics automation investor.

“We mistakenly thought there would be enough excitement to drive them into early-stage technology development,” said CEO Charlie Grinnell, but it “was just way too early for them.”

The Billerica, Mass.-based startup had raised $2.9 million in January beyond an initial $25 million and has reportedly sold about 150 OmniVeyor TM-100 robots so far. However, warehouses have different requirements from nurseries, and several robotics companies already moving into that space.

In addition, Carnegie Mellon University has ceased collaborating with Uber Inc., which is working on self-driving cars, according to The New York Times.

CMU initially put on a brave face about the loss of 40 researchers to the ride-sharing company, and Uber offered the Pittsburgh-based university a consolation prize of $5.5 million to rebuild its robotics department.

However, even a jobs pipeline for graduates may not have been enough to make up for the loss of researchers that the university needs to work on its numerous government contracts.

CMU might prefer that its spinoffs get acquired rather than its own academic partners raid it for staffers. Examples from 2015 include autonomous vehicle company Ottomatika Inc., which was acquired by Delphi Automotive PLC, and Blue Belt Technologies, which was acquired by Smith & Nephew PLC.

3DR reduces staff

Meanwhile, aerial drone maker 3D Robotics Inc. said it is laying off employees, partly in reaction to competition from DJI (Dajiang Innovation Technology Inc.).

The Berkeley, Calif.-based company’s Solo drone costs $3,249, while DJI’s Phantom 4 costs $1,400. The price, the size of the consumer and commercial markets, and restrictions on where such drones can be flown all affect sales.

3D Robotics is rearranging its managers, consolidating offices, and outsourcing production to China. It also plans to focus on software as a service, such as its Site Scan aerial analytics system.

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