We’ve all seen futuristic sci-fi films where robots have taken over, filling jobs once held by humans. Well, in some types of construction, that may soon be a reality.
Masonry is a sector of the construction industry that is already being disrupted by robotics. A number of large projects around the country have used a robotic bricklaying machine, and many in the industry see the technology as a potential solution to labor shortages and productivity issues.
According to the National Association of Homebuilders, 65 percent of bricklayer and mason contractors nationwide say they’re experiencing a labor shortage. As the construction labor force continues to age, the problem is likely to worsen.
Robots can lay 800 to 1,200 bricks per day, compared to the 300 to 500 that humans can lay.
The process of bricklaying, the tools involved and the level of productivity—ergo how much of a brick wall a worker can build in an hour—haven’t changed much in decades. This has the bricklaying sector in a prime spot for disruption.
How a Bricklaying Robot Works
Robotic bricklaying relies on a robot-human team. A semi-automated mason (the most-adopted one so far is known as SAM, for short) is responsible for the more repetitive tasks, such as picking up bricks, applying mortar and placing them in the specified location, according to a report in the MIT Technology Review.
Human workers take care of the more complex, specialized tasks, like setting up work sites, laying bricks in trickier spots like corners, and handling aesthetics, for instance, removing excess mortar.
The robot works using a set of algorithms, a laser, and sensors that measure angles, velocity and orientation. The laser is installed between two poles to the right and left of the robot and its workspace, and it moves along the wall as a guide for the robot bricklayer.
Robots can lay 800 to 1,200 bricks per day, compared to the 300 to 500 that humans can lay, according to the MIT report.
Experts in the field say that the SAM is meant to enhance the work of human masons and boost efficiency, but not necessarily to replace them.
“There are lots of things that SAM isn’t capable of doing that you need skilled bricklayers to do,” Brian Kennedy, policy director of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, told Phys.org. “We support anything that supports the masonry industry. We don’t stand in the way of technology.”
3 Projects Built with Robot Bricklayers
Several contractors around the country have been putting bricklaying robots into practice. Here’s an overview of three of those projects:
1. Auburn University Arts Center
Rabren General Contractors in partnership with subcontractor C&C Masonry is using the Construction Robotics SAM1000 bricklaying robot on its $70 million, 85,000-square-foot project to build the Jay and Susie Gogue Performing Arts Center at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, according to Construction Dive.
The technology can place 3,000 bricks per day and reduces the amount of manpower needed for the job by four or five masons, Scott Cunningham, C&C’s president, told Construction Dive.
2. Welch College Project
WASCO used Construction Robotics’ SAM100 for a 2016 project at Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee, in order to enhance productivity on the job site, according to Masonry Construction.
With the help of a robotic bricklaying machine, the number of workers needed on the project was reduced, efficiencies were created, and the bricklaying portion of the project was completed faster. For the project, the SAM was the equivalent of two and a half workers.
3. Clayton Elementary School
Fransen Pittman General Contractors and Berich Masonry deployed the masonry robot SAM100 for the Clayton Elementary School in Englewood, Colorado, building project earlier this year, according to the Englewood Herald.
Using the robotic technology was meant to make the job easier for masons and creative efficiencies on the project. The SAM could lay more than 600 bricks in a two-hour window. Project leaders were able to track its progress on a tablet.