Construction companies that build anything from small houses to giant buildings—as well as demolition crews—now have more options for augmenting their workforce tools than ever before. Several innovative robotics products for construction are now on the market, and more are on the way.
Construction Robotics has two robotic Semi-Automated Masonry (SAM) systems available on a limited release basis. SAM works just like a human mason and can lay bricks and mortar. “SAM will actually put mortar on the brick instead of on the wall,” says Zak Podkaminer, Operations Manager for Construction Robotics. “We tested it out in 2013 on a prototype system that worked alongside a mason. Then we went back to the drawing board and made SAM smaller, lighter, faster, easier to move—more user friendly.” The company is still making software enhancements and hardware improvements. Orders for SAM are being taken now with delivery by March 2016.
Another innovative company called nlink.no has created a mobile drilling robot for construction. Simply program a pre-defined pattern into your tablet and the robot follows a laser grid to drill holes for anchors in the sheet rock of concrete floors and ceilings. “You turn it on and it will go through buildings and drill holes by the tens of thousands,” says Dan Kara, Practice Director, Robotics, Automation & Intelligence systems Group for ADI Research.
If you’re looking for more design flair for your building, Artiac has robotic systems that mass produce tiles based on a scanned photograph or other graphic representation. “Artaic can take a photo or drawing and scan it, and the robot will create that pattern and colors for you,” says Kara. “Say you have an 8 x 15 pattern, it will create 2x2 mats, all ordered and numbered. The company is now moving to tiles of various configurations—square, oval, or other geometric configuration so they can offer more granularity with designs.”
Several demolition robots are also available. “They are more common than one would expect,” says Kara. “It’s easier to break down (something) than to put it together.” Danish company Husqvarna has a remote controlled demolition robot equipped with an industrial robotic arm that hammers through concrete. “You just set it up, stand back 20 yards and watch it break up concrete floors and roads,” says Kara. “They are hydraulic robots, not electric so they can take high heat.”
Another Scandinavian manufacturer, Brokk, Inc., has extremely powerful remote controlled demolition machines that can be used to smash down not only concrete but also asphalt and brick.
Omer Haciomeroglu of Sweden’s Umeå Institute of Design has come up with an ERO concrete demolition robot that can set up a coordinate system and take down concrete walls automatically. Post-smashing, it also assists with removing asphalt, dust, paint, and asbestos. “ERO can also recycle rebar and in many cases the bricks,” says Kara. “It’s an environmentally good solution.”
Construction robots don’t get tired and don’t need overtime pay. Compared to a human bricklayer, Kara found a construction robot can lay 1400 bricks in the same time as a human lays 400 bricks—a 3 to 1 productivity advantage. “It saves money, is more productive, you don’t have to worry about back injuries, and it can work more than 8 hour shifts,” says Kara.
Some may balk at the $650,000 price tag for SAM, but according to Podkaminer, if you take the prevailing wages for the Massachusetts area where he is based, a business owner can pay SAM back in one to two years, depending on how much you utilize it and how you implement it. “If you were to take a SAM system and work 2 shifts, or 3 shifts, you could pay it back faster.”
The larger companies that offer demolition robots, for example, are likely to offer payment plans and other payment options. In the end, says Kara, the “ROI on these things are pretty good. The ROI is very measurable.”
With more technological innovations on the way, robotic systems are making new inroads onto construction sites—from building walls and floors, to drilling holes in ceilings, to laying down patterned tiles, to tearing sites down. “Construction robots will challenge how you approach a construction site,” says Podkaminer. “Everything you know is going to change.”
SooJi Min is a freelance writer and nonprofit executive based in Ann Arbor, MI. She has written on small business topics for Crain’s, Imagination Publishing and The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.