SAM, the robotic bricklayer

Automating the jobsite to double, triple, or even quadruple productivity to prepare for industry growth

Scott Peters and Robert Belden

Onsite automation is one more attribute of a brick masonry wall’s already unparalleled list of added value, ensuring its competitive advantage. Beautiful | Textural | Colorful | Distinguished by its Articulation | Resilient | Sustainable | Regionally Sourced & Manufactured with Natural, Abundant Materials | Ability for Reuse | Use of Recycled Content in Masonry, Mortar & Grout | Recyclable | Lifecycle Cost Advantage | No VOCs or Off-Gassing | Stops Fire Cold | High-Wind Resistant | Thermal Mass | Component of a High R Insulated Masonry Cavity Wall Contributing to Optimizing Energy Performance | Structural Redundancy | Acoustic Performance | Sound Isolation | Inherent Arching Action | Prefabricated Walls & Components

PARTNERS The Belden Brick Company, Canton OH, key advocate, provides technical support, advice and guidance on the brick industry. Hydro Mobile, L’Assomption, Québec Canada, supported the integration of SAM onto their platform. Progressive Machine and Design, Victor NY, custom automation equipment manufacturer, with expertise designing and building some of the world’s most advanced automation systems assisted with system design and build. Staubli Robotics, Faverges France, a world leading robot manufacturer, has worked closely during all stages of development and has brought great robotics and automation expertise. Construction Robotics, Victor NY, manufacturer, has a diverse background of experience developing various technologies, and is passionate about its mission of Advancing Construction and bringing automation, robotics and advanced technology to the construction industry.

Economic Conditions Breed New Opportunity

It is estimated that over the next seven years, there will be a 40% growth in the number of masonry jobs1. SAM is a Semi-Automated Masonry robotic system, the world’s first, used for onsite masonry. SAM is a high-level producer that will bring young, educated, technically-skilled workers to the masonry industry and a new tool of the trade. Much like a young person learning to run a CNC (computer numerical control) machine or factory automation equipment, he or she can now enter the masonry industry learning to run advanced automation equip ment on a jobsite. This will invigorate the industry and provide greater exposure to masonry.

The US Department of Defense is interested in construction robots from a preparedness standpoint to be ready to work in view of a disaster. The construction industry is eager to output jobs faster. Masonry is preparing to be a leader in this opportunity. The possibility now exists that prefabricated walls and components will be constructed in manufacturing plants using robots.

We propose that masons will keep their crews intact and add SAM to get the job done 20% faster and lay about 1500-2500 more brick per day by sending one mason to Construction Robotics University. That one mason would be able to program and monitor SAM to lay 500 – 2500 brick per day. SAM will augment the number of bricklayers in the industry and increase the number of brick laid in a day. SAM’s skill set is to do the repetitive work of laying one over two. Human bricklayers continue to be necessary for detail work, more finesse, tooling the joints and for all the other tasks that masons accomplish such as installing insulation, flashing, drainage cavities, brick ties, end dams, weeps, control joints etc.

Using Automation to solve challenges that masons face has been around since the early 1920s. According to the Bricklaying Machine patent application filed January 18, 1928 by Jasper N Youngblood, “This invention aims to provide a simple means whereby brick may be taken up, transported to a wall, and laid in the wall, mortar being deposited on each course, and the mortar being troweled off and smoothed down, to make a good bed for the next succeeding course of brick.”

Even so, most improvements in the brick industry have involved the manufacturing process including the drying, burning and handling of brick in the factory. Installation of the product in the wall is still done by hand, one brick at a time. It is incumbent upon our industry to find techno logical solutions that make the installed product more competitive with other clad ding materials. A newly developed Semi-Automated Masonry robotic system is a positive step in that direction.

Positive effects of automation will be substantial, including great promise in reducing the cost of an installed brick wall and enabling masons to have productive working careers, well beyond current expectations.

The repetitive nature of masonry lends itself well to automation, but the complexity and varying jobsite conditions do not. Recent advancements in technology, along with a determined start-up company from Victor NY, have shown that semi-auto mated masonry is not only possible, but happening. Today we introduce a new mason to the team; his name is SAM. For a few weeks last fall, industry leaders were able to grab a glimpse of the future. The first prototype was demonstrated on a real jobsite, working along-side masons on Progressive Machine and Design’s new headquarters in Victor NY.

Automation can provide predictability, reduce product cost, improve delivery time and increase profits. These advantages of robots and automation have amplified productivity throughout North America and can provide benefits to the masonry trade and construction industry. Industrial robots are excellent at doing repetitive tasks with a high degree of accuracy and speed. They have been used in automotive plants and other control led industry settings since the 1960s. By using robots to perform repetitive tasks, physical strain on workers is reduced, allowing them to focus on quality and detail work that requires skilled craftsmanship.

In brick plants where robots are routinely used since the turn of this century, they load raw brick onto kiln cars for firing and again onto pallets for packaging. At The Belden Brick Company, even the brick blend is computerized for the robot to package as the perfect blend for every job.

Going forward, there will be more and more robots and automation systems on jobsites.

Any major construction trade show will demonstrate amazing sensing and laser technologies, self-driving tractors and other techno logies that are changing construction.

History of the Semi- Automated Mason (SAM)

Automation of masonry has been attempted on many occasions. Patents for automated masonry equipment dates back to the early 1900s. During the 1980s in particular, there were a number of patents filed and efforts pursued. However, none was able to gain traction. Much of this is related to the state of the industry as well as lack of advanced technology to help systems achieve speed and accuracy needed to be successful.

Nate Podkaminer, in 2007 an executive vice president of Hueber Breuer Construction in Syracuse NY and longtime construction industry veteran, believed the time had come. He observed how masonry, a great building product, could use a boost to retain its position as the preferred wall system. A change was needed. He proposed the idea of laying brick with robots.

After initial investigation, it was realized that as far as computers and robotics had come, there were still missing technologies. Robots were design ed and built for use in a control led environment, where they are bolted to a stable surface such as a concrete floor. Using a robot on a jobsite, with varying and unknown conditions presented major challenges. The first and most significant challenge was to integrate the robot with a sensing system that would detect movement on a jobsite and correct for this. Even putting a robot on a strong, stable platform, such as a mast climbing work platform (MCWP), doesn’t provide a stable enough surface; there is still significant movement. Without a special sensing system, the robot would not be able to lay a straight brick wall.

Three years were spent working with universities and automation companies to prove the original concepts for SAM. In 2011, the first engineer was hired and a prototype system was designed and built. Using SAM on a jobsite proved this technology worked. During the summer of 2012, the team received a Phase 1 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant to focus on the mortar application process associated with semi-automated masonry.

During this time, the concept continued to gain traction. The team grew. In August 2013, the team was awarded a Phase 2 SBIR grant, focused on helping to commercialize SAM. Using feedback and information gained from this valuable experience at Progressive Machine and Design, SAM will be modified, improved and ready for more jobsites during 2014. SAM is currently scheduling work. Positive Impact SAM will have a positive impact on brick market share by making brick a more competitive choice, helping the industry grow.

• Job cost savings of greater than 30%

• Reduce physical strain on the masonry crew; mason works with the system, tooling joints, running the system and ensuring high wall quality

• Reliable quality of the finished wall

• Lower injury and safety risk on workforce

• Consistent production rate/ performance

• Predictable estimating of jobs

Masonry is labor intensive, with more than half of a job cost coming from labor. One advantage of using a SAM system is efficiency gains in labor, which provides an overall job cost savings, resulting in lower bid prices and increasing profits for the mason contractor. These lower job costs will also help contractors win more bids and convince building owners to use more brick. Shown in Figure 1, pie charts comparing the potential savings for a job that was bid around $538,900 using traditional masonry. That same job may be bid for 10% lower and still provide a contractor profit potentially higher than the traditional job.

SAM is not intended to replace bricklayers, and, in fact, it could not operate without a mason working along its side. SAM is an addition to the crew as an efficient bricklayer. “The mason still has the eye,” explains Mike Palmer, owner of Remlap Masonry, mason contractor on the Progressive Machine and Design project, the first to use SAM. “The mason works beside SAM monitoring quality and accuracy, connecting ties to brick after SAM lays it, tooling the joints, adding insulation and other wall components. All SAM does is place buttered brick in the wall. Automation can provide the edge the masonry industry needs to push the market share button. If we can install conventional masonry at less cost and keep bricklayers working, it’s a winwin,” he explains.

Software Integration Efficiencies

In addition to lower costs, a mason would be able to more accurately predict the productivity of his jobs. Once on a jobsite, SAM would be able to provide real-time status updates for how it was doing against its targets. Masonry crews that operate SAM would also spend more time thinking and planning the job, focusing on quality and details while SAM was able to provide high throughput. SAM would get the recipe files directly from CAD drawings. SAM’s software would eventually be able to be tied into BIM and masonry estimating systems. This level of software integration will allow more accurate planning upfront and a more streamlined activity once on the jobsite. It would speed up the estimating process and reduce any jobsite wasted time and materials. These LEAN practices have been used in manufacturing plants for years to help streamline the over – all process for assembling parts of any kind. They have helped keep part costs down as well as improved delivery times for parts and will provide similar results for masonry.

What to Expect from SAM

SAM is a tool of the mason, similar to how an excavator is a tool of the site work contractor. When bidding a job, mason contractors evaluate how the crew will execute the logistics of a job. Is it a mast climbing work platform job or a pipe scaffolding job? How big of a crew will be needed? Are there a lot of details (windows, corners, ornamentation) or are there long straight runs? All of these factor in deter mining how to bid the job. SAM is simply one more factor. Most projects where a MCWP would be used would be a good place for SAM to work.

Once the mason contractor plans his job, he can leverage his bidding software and predictable production rates of SAM. Upon being awarded the bid, he will create his recipe files for SAM using custom software and architect provided CAD drawings used in estimating. This planning process will allow him to work through the details of running SAM. During the early versions of SAM, these recipe files will be created by SAM’s manufacturer, but advancements in soft ware will eventually allow the mason contractor to build these recipes themselves.

This work will be done by the contractor’s SAM-Certified tech crew, a group of tech savvy masons who have attended the SAM training program. Any mason who owns and proficiently operates a smartphone will be capable of learning how to operate SAM.

Once recipe files are created, a process that will take hours, not days, SAM is ready for the jobsite. When the site is prepared, SAM will be delivered on a simple flatbed. Overall dimensions of SAM will be close to 9′ wide x 4′ tall x 3.5′ deep and weigh under 2,000 lbs. A fork lift will be able to easily remove SAM from the flatbed, drive it to the mast climber and easily place it on the pre-mounted rails. Taking SAM off one platform and placing it on another will be a fast and easy process. This will allow one masonry crew to prepare a section of wall, while the tech crew runs SAM on another area of a jobsite. After SAM has been set in place, the setup process would be similar to how a mason does it today. The mason would set up his story pole on one end and SAM’s laser story pole on the other. He would then take his masonry opening measurements and enter those numbers into the SAM system. Then set the manual tabs at coursing heights, press auto align and the system would map the area. This overall setup process should take no longer than 15 minutes with an experienced operator.

The first version of SAM (SAM100) released in 2014, will be able to lay approximately 2,000 brick in an eight-hour day. Run SAM will be less physically demanding for the mason. On most manufacturing floors, if volumes increase, the first change is to start running multiple shifts. The same rules could apply here. If a job demanded a faster delivery, SAM would be able to operate for 12 hours per day, or more. Operating SAM for 12 hours would produce approximately 3,000 brick laid per day. Payback is expected to be less than two years when operating SAM for eight hours per day.

Once SAM is setup for a section of wall, the operator would run a short calibration procedure, to ensure the brick will be placed where they are supposed to be. After this short five-minute process is complete, the operator presses GO. SAM will then continuously lay the section of wall that was just setup. This could be upwards of 40′ wide by 4′ high. During this time, the laborers would continue to load mortar and brick into SAM and the mason would continue to monitor wall quality and install other wall components. Throughout the process, anyone could walk up to SAM and visually see what brick SAM is working on. (see Figure 2.)

Passing the Test

Another major benefit of automation is the consistency. SAM’s brick laying process has undergone testing showing equivalent or better strength in a wall tie pull out test as well as a bond wrench test. The process that SAM uses is consistent and reliable. The mason and architect would be assured knowing that SAM was on the job, and that all head joints were full, little to no mortar was falling to the wall cavity and the bond between courses was strong. Monitoring wall quality is a visual process.

SAM is built to be robust and durable with a life span of approximately 10 years. It will be supported regionally, similar to other equipment. For general maintenance issues, a regional company will be able to service and repair SAM. The manufacturer will also be available for advanced technical support.

Beta Launch

During 2014, SAM100 will be available for use by up to three mason contractors. One engineer will accompany SAM on the jobsite to provide onsite training for the mason’s operators and to create a feedback loop for real jobsite experiences. This will allow the development team to make any software updates or necessary adjustments during the soft launch (Beta testing) in preparation for the real launch in 2015. The three selected mason contractors will have a special and unique opportunity. They will not only be able to ensure they have access to technology that will allow them to win more jobs, but they will also receive numerous other benefits during these early jobs. Those mason contractors who are interested in being leaders and helping advance the masonry industry should contact the manufacturer. After SAM has established itself on numerous jobsites during 2014, it will be ready for a full-industry launch. Mason contractors who are interested in embellishing their crews to include SAM will be able to schedule a trip to watch SAM perform before placing orders.

Robotics fixed in position in the plant setting are quite a bit different than what we see with SAM. Brick are marshalled in a very consistent and specific manner so that the robots can be program med to handle them repetitively depending on the dimensions, weight, setting patterns, etc. There are no sensors that enable the robot to divert from the programmed path to the brick or to the kiln car with the brick. Utilizing sensors and lasers to adjust to real world variable conditions potentially makes SAM more than a novelty. One of the strengths of SAM’s development is the team’s ability to respond to conditions in the field and to make adjustments to deal with those variables.

Productivity for tomorrow

Vision for a futuristic jobsite has been discussed many times and in many articles. Today, it is easy to see many of those visions becoming a reality within just a few years. Currently, there are vehicles driving on construction sites that use sensors to determine where to go. Leveraging that type of technology allows a contractor to get work done faster and more efficiently.

It can be easily seen how, in a few short years from now, one could walk onto a jobsite and watch a mason contractor with an 11-man crew operating up to four SAM systems. The crew would set up SAM on a wall section and then leave a mason operating while the crew sets up the next section of wall. This type of work may enable a mason contractor to lay 8,000+ brick per day with the same size crew that today may only lay 2,000 to 3,000 brick. These types of productivity gains will not only increase the number of jobs one mason contractor can construct simultaneously, but will lower the installed cost of brick and help the industry grow at an unprecedented rate. Laying concrete block will be the next focus for SAM, creating an even more cost effective, resilient structural wall system.

Scott Peters is vice president, partner and tehnical lead for Construction Robotics (CR). He has been involved with CR since inception in 2007 and hasled the technology development, including grant activities, patent applications and design and development of the system. Peters has over 12 years of experience as an engineer and team lead in various functions including process controls, new product development, team and project leadership, manufacturing engineering and applications engineering. He is recognized for his technical team and project leadership ability. As an entrepreneur, he has successfully developed and licensed technologies in other industries, leading the product development from concept through commercial prototypes. Peters received his BS and MS in Chemical Engineering from the University of Rochester. 585.750.1437

Bob Belden, president and CEO of The Belden Brick Company in Canton OH, represents the fourth generation of the family brick manufacturer established in 1885, now with 13 Belden and Redland Brick plants in five states. Belden is on the board of directors of the Brick Industry Association and past chair; director for the Brick Institute of America, Mid East Region; member of ASTM and active in many civic and philanthro pic or ganizations. Belden is a GREAT MIND of the editorial advisory board for SMART | dynamics of masonry. He has a Bachel or of Science in Mathema tics from University of Notre Dame and a MBA from University of Michigan. | 330.456.0031

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