Retooled robotic mason brings added might to sites

The original SAM100 masonry robot has been around for two years and is capable of laying 150 bricks per hour. (Image courtesy of Construction Robotics)

Meet SAM—short for Semi-Automated Mason 100—a robotic bricklayer that for two years toiled on scaffolds alongside US masons, applying mortar to brick, then placing units in their specified locations at a rate of 150 per hour. The propane-propelled system, the brainchild of Victor, NY-based Construction Robotics, launched in February 2015 at World of Concrete in Las Vegas, where it won the Industry Choice Award for Most Innovative Product.

Among its first applications: a 29,000-square-foot facility for The Lab School in Washington, DC, with Clark Construction Group serving as general contractor.

The SAM100 OS 2.0 (shown here), an upgraded version of SAM100, can lay bricks at a rate of 350 per hour—or about 3,000 per day. (Image courtesy of Construction Robotics)

Now meet SAM100 OS 2.0, an enhanced version of SAM100 released last fall before making its official debut in January at 2017’s World of Concrete. The OS 2.0 is faster. It can lay bricks at a rate of 350 per hour—about 3,000 per day, or roughly two to three times the rate of a pair of masons. And, unlike the SAM 100, it can place bricks in soldier courses, allowing units to stand vertically. Additionally, Construction Robotics has introduced a three-day training course for customers that places SAM more squarely in the hands of masons, according to company president and cofounder Scott Peters.

Previously, the firm frequently deployed one of its employees to operate SAM on-site. Employees are still on hand at a job’s start, but now they step back as the job progresses, monitoring and managing operations remotely via cloud-based software, Peters says.

SAM 2.0 marks the culmination of a 10-year partnership between Peters and Construction Robotics chairman and co-founder Zak Podkaminer, an architect and construction project manager. Peters, who earned his degree in chemical engineering, once worked for General Motors, marveling at the degree to which robotics and advanced manufacturing technologies were involved in assembling product. Podkaminer lamented that construction was light-years behind in implementing such practices.

Seeking to bridge the gap, the two began eyeing masonry: “It is manual, strenuous, intensive, repetitive, and populated by an aging workforce,” Peters says. “Like other trades, it also is facing labor shortages.”

Not that the Peters and Podkaminer intended to send masons the way of the dinosaur—far from it, Peters says. Rather, SAM is meant to augment their work while attracting a younger, more technologically oriented workforce to the trade. Its primary role is to boost productivity, making operations more profitable. “We see robots and masons working in a collaborative fashion,” Peters says.

As designed, SAM relies on a mason to operate it, a tender to load it with masonry and mortar, and another mason to fasten wall ties, remove excess mortar, and lay bricks at corners and other challenging locations.

Among other features, SAM can adapt to deviations between plans and as-built conditions. “Nothing is ever exactly as it appears on paper,” Peters says. “A window may lie an inch or two to the right or left of its designated location, so we needed to engineer SAM to contend with those conditions.”

SAM’s basic components include a large robotic arm with multiple joints; sensors that measure velocity, incline angles, and orientation; a laser serving as SAM’s eyes, detecting the depths and distances required to correctly place each brick; a pair of story poles at the extreme left and right edges of the work area; a CAD/CAM-generated design that maps out the job; and a tablet-based control panel that allows on-site masons to enter critical wall measurements, including heights and window locations and sizes.

Among other functions, the laser corrects for movement and vibration on-site, ensuring wind and other conditions don’t deter SAM from hitting its marks.

SAM underwent several modifications during development, particularly after a test run involving a wall section for Victor-based Progressive Machine and Design in 2013. “It was a huge success—but also a disaster,” Peters says. “We learned a heck of a lot.” In addition to issues with the laser, “we recognized we needed a system that was smaller, lighter, and easier to use,” Peters says. “We kept the software but redesigned the entire machine in a year.” Among other modifications, SAM’s weight dropped from 4,500 lbs to 3,300 lbs.

“We see robots and masons working in a collaborative fashion.”

— Scott Peters, President and Cofounder, Construction Robotics

The system is particularly well suited for “large, flat sections ranging from 50 feet to 100 feet in length,” Peters says. To date, SAM has found success with institutional projects such as schools and hospitals, but it has also advanced into other sectors. Among other recent projects, it has worked on a facility for Columbus McKinnon Corp., a manufacturer and distributor of material handling systems in Amherst, NY; a Marriott Towneplace Suites in Cranberry, PA; and an Aldi supermarket in Pulaski, NY.

Construction Robotics currently operates a fleet of four robots, available for purchase or lease. “Look for many more to come online in the near future,” Peters says.

Editors Note: Construction Robotics President and Co-founder Scott Peters will be on hand to participate in BuiltWorlds’ The Rise of the Machines Conference: How Automation and Robotics Are Changing Construction on April 6. Click here for more information.

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