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Robotics Hardware Science Technology

Bricklaying Robots and Exoskeletons Are the Future of the Construction Industry (vice.com) 228

David Silverberg reports via Motherboard: One of the most staid and digitally conservative industries is on the verge of a robotic makeover. The global construction space isn't known for ushering new tech into their workforce, but a painful labour shortage, calls for increased worker safety and more low-cost housing, and the need to catch up to other tech-savvy sectors is giving upstarts in robotics and exoskeletons their big moment. The construction industry isn't immune to this phenomenon, but robots and humans may increasingly work hand-in-hand in industrial sectors, according to Brian Turmail, senior executive director of public affairs at the Associated General Contractors of America. This is especially true when the construction industry en masse uses exoskeleton vests, which aim to assist workers with heavy loads and thus reduce their risk of injury.

The Hadrian X is a bricklaying robot courtesy Australia's Fastbrick Robotics, which uses its 30-meter metal arm to lay bricks at a rate of 1,000 bricks per hour, compared to a human worker's average of 1,000 a day. Due for release in late 2017, Hadrian X can read a 3D CAD model of the house and then it follows those instructions precisely, working day and night. New York-based Construction Robotics has also developed its take on a bricklaying robot. SAM can lay 3,000 bricks a day, and the company said it's about time this industry got a whiff of the change almost every other market has been seeing.

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Bricklaying Robots and Exoskeletons Are the Future of the Construction Industry

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @09:10AM (#55062411)

    a painful labour shortage

    There's no shortage of workers. There are lots of people around who'd be willing to do this work. It's a shortage of employers willing to pay the wage required to properly compensate people for doing the work. Pay a proper wage and this "labor shortage" will disappear immediately.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Actually, there is a surplus of workers who believe their labour is worth more than it really is. That's the real problem and it is being rectified.
      • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @09:20AM (#55062483)

        Actually, there is a surplus of workers who believe their labour is worth more than it really is. That's the real problem and it is being rectified.

        Quit picking on the CEO's.

      • Within a capitalist economy, their labor is worth whatever it may cost to lure them into doing the job.

        • If robots are cheaper, robots will do the work.

          • Yep. And that's the looming problem we're all facing - robots have reached the point that they're rapidly encroaching on most areas of human endeavor - able to do things better, faster, and cheaper than any human. Unless your job requires significant amounts of creativity you'll likely be facing robotic replacement within a few decades. Even middle management will likely be largely replaced, and upper management is safe only because they're the ones calling the shots.

            So, the question is do we start doing

      • by tomhath ( 637240 )
        More like a shortage of workers who will work for a salary instead of living on government handouts.
      • LOL, no, that's bullshit. The problem is a properly skilled, talented, experienced worker makes his job look easy. Meanwhile the guys signing the checks, who don't know the first thing about doing the actual work and are only good at shuffling papers, drinking coffee, and telling other people how to do their jobs (regardless of being full of shit) actually believe that it's easy and anyone can do the work -- because the guys who are good at it make it look easy. You want quality work, you pay a quality wage
        • by HiThere ( 15173 )

          The problem with that thesis is that paying for quality work doesn't guarantee that you get quality work. And you have already specified that the people in charge can't tell the difference.

          This is why the school of management that says "a good manager can manage anything" is wrong. A good manager can manage managers, because he recognizes good management. A good carpenter is not necessarily a good manager, but can recognize another good carpenter. So good middle management is the important part...but to

          • If you're a 'manager' at any level and you can't even recognize whether your workforce is doing high quality work or not, then I say you're a poor manager and you're the one being overpaid and in need of replacement. Furthermore if you're a manager and you don't have some supervisors under you that do know how to do the work, and therefore ensure a high quality of the work done, then you're likewise screwing up and either need to up your management game or get replaced by someone who can. I grew up around t
    • Good. Automation in the home construction business will drive down prices so normal mortals can afford a house, right?

      Who am I kidding, this will just allow speculators to throw up more buildings to be snapped up by Chinese investors and sit empty.
      • Housing prices in most places are caused by two things right now: Super low interest rates, and speculators. So you'd be right, not at all. Hell in Canada, it's so bad that in parts where speculation is running wild(BC, Ontario) that nearly 50% of those houses, apts, and so on are sitting empty.

        I live in a small town, 5 years ago a buddy of mine bought a house here which went for $79k. Today it's worth $390k, the median income is around $42k/year. The market crash when it happens here in Canada is going to be spectacular. It's even worse in places like Toronto which have seen house prices go from $600k last year to $1.1m this year.

        • by Penguinisto ( 415985 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @10:06AM (#55062721) Journal

          It's not just Canada...

          In parts of the US West Coast, housing speculation has skyrocketed, hard. For instance, in Portland, OR and surrounding areas, a house that you couldn't get rid of for $200k during the housing bust of 2007-2010 (or so) will sell out in less than 48 hours now for $550k.

          Even way out in the sticks where I live (a 75 to 90-minute commute from downtown Portland), I purchased a hidden gem of sorts (a 2 bdrm cabin on 6 acres) in an unincorporated area of Columbia County for $250k back in late 2015. Nowadays I routinely get pestered by real estate vultures wanting me to sell it for $350-$400k (the little house is very nice, but it's mostly for the land, which has 800' of riverfront, and has wilderness areas next door on two sides of the property). In a year, I bet they'll be sniffing around for $500-600k or so if the bubble holds up. Funny thing though, I bought the place to retire in, so, well, screw 'em. I'm staying put.

          • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

            It's not just Canada...

            In parts of the US West Coast, housing speculation has skyrocketed, hard.

            Australia as well, we shouldn't forget them. And in the UK their largest subprime lender, just lost 75% of it's value. A subprime lender here in Canada lost 80% of it's market value a few months ago too.

          • by tofarr ( 2467788 )
            That's a nice situation to be in - until the value goes up and property taxes start to hurt to the point that you have to sell (At about 70 years old)
        • by lgw ( 121541 )

          By "most places" you of course mean "1% of places where everyone is dogpiling in, while 99% of places are cheap". Lot of land out there, even near cities.

    • It's a shortage of employers willing to pay the wage required to properly compensate people for doing the work. Pay a proper wage and this "labor shortage" will disappear immediately.

      Well, sort of. If the employee overhead (wages, taxes, etc) plus other costs add up to more than they can reasonably sell the product (house/building/etc) for, then either of the following happens:
      1) corners are cut
      2) the project is scaled back in size, scope, or features
      3) the price skyrockets to match costs+previously promised returns on investment
      4) the project is abandoned (this happens a lot more than you think, especially on larger construction gigs.)

      Now, if someone coughs up a robot that can do the j

      • by lgw ( 121541 )

        More than that, bricklaying and masonry in general is a skilled trade, and there's a deep labor shortage in the skilled trades, especially construction-related, that's really limiting new construction. We're sending everyone off to college with the expectation of a white-collar job these days, and very few are going to be looking at jobs like bricklaying at any (reasonable) pay.

    • by Wrath0fb0b ( 302444 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @09:58AM (#55062669)

      Pay a proper wage and this "labor shortage" will disappear immediately.

      And how much would you have to charge for a new starter home? Would that price be beyond the budget of most first time aspiring homebuyers?

      The definition of a "proper wage" has always been competition between how much buyers are willing to pay for the final product and how much suppliers are willing to sell their goods/labor. You can't just point at one side and way "raise the wage" without explaining why buyers are going to pay more and what impact that will have on them. At least for me, keeping the barriers to homeownership low seems like a very worthy social goal, one that needs to be balanced against all the other worthy goals we have.

    • And the flow of credit to pay those workers is also drying up.
    • A journeyman bricklayer makes ~$35/hour W2 in Los Angeles, and there is a shortage. They can easily get 25% overtime at 1.5x. Most low-rise residential and all single family homes would be non-union labor closer to $15-18/hour W2 with lower benefits.

      The real shortage in California specifically is in electricians, who make $50-65/hour (journeyman), and could easily make $130-150k with overtime.

    • It's a shortage of employers willing to pay the wage required to properly compensate people for doing the work. Pay a proper wage and this "labor shortage" will disappear immediately.

      100% correct

      • by lgw ( 121541 )

        Oh? Pay more and a crowd of new people will instantly become journeyman bricklayers, having completed training and years of apprenticeship? You have a shallow and simple-minded view of things, I'd say.

    • by Eloking ( 877834 )

      a painful labour shortage

      There's no shortage of workers. There are lots of people around who'd be willing to do this work. It's a shortage of employers willing to pay the wage required to properly compensate people for doing the work. Pay a proper wage and this "labor shortage" will disappear immediately.

      Automation engineer here. I guess this is part of the argument that I see quite regularly.

      When you work in that field, it's inevitable that you eventually ask yourself : "Am I destroying jobs?"

      The way I see it, yes we do destroy job. But do you know what's even more efficient to destroy Western jobs? Chineses!

      I'm surprised that we get so much hate while most manifacturing jobs have been lost to mondialisation during the 20th century. Are we already forgotten that about everything you buy in Walmart have a "

  • by Viol8 ( 599362 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @09:11AM (#55062421) Homepage

    "Been hurt at work? Did you exoskeleton suddenly fail when you were lifting 200kg of blocks above your head 5 floors up? Now paralysed and being fed via a tube? Give Constructive Legal a call on ....."

    etc.

    • by judoguy ( 534886 )
      No different from a forklift mechanical failure or accident, e.g., soil compacting unevenly under one tire while lifting at the machine limit.

      Nothing new here. 1000's of years of construction has seen it all, even if it looks different to an outsider.

      • by TWX ( 665546 )

        Plus with the current litigious nature of things I would expect that exoskeleton to see quite a bit of testing and safety systems prior to widespread use.

        New automobile maintenance lifts used in commercial settings are required to have automatic locking systems to prevent a hydraulic failure from lowering the load. If hydraulic pressure is lost the load will settle-down onto the mechanical lock right below it, so that the load doesn't crush the mechanic or unevenly lower the vehicle to where it falls off t

      • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

        You can jump clear of a forklift unless it has a protective cab. Good luck trying to jump out of an exoskeleton and it has no protective cage.

        • Clear a forklift? Really?
          When rough conditions happen, you have no warning, because you are already in mud or tilted terrain. So when you finally tilt, there is no warning. And the danger of tilting itself isn't so bad, you just sit sideways: No the real danger of tilting, is that things start tumbling or falling around.
          When you think about it, Exoskeletons only need one safety mechanism for common usage: If something goes wrong, lock joint. And allow user to leave the device, if he has help.

          Then again, the

  • by Baron_Yam ( 643147 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @09:13AM (#55062441)

    The video in the article shows a rather large device laying bricks according to plan. Fine.. but bricks alone are more or less useless without mortar. And in most cases (at least in my region) bricks are a facing on wood frame construction over a poured concrete basement. This robot doesn't look like it can work on anything but an empty slab of concrete, limiting it to small industrial unit builds.

    Now, the second bricklayer robot linked to from the main article... that looks more interesting. It lays bricks against an existing surface, it's smaller, and it appears to handle mortar.

    I'm still more keen on the giant 3D printers that print layers of concrete, though as you'd expect there's still a long way to go before they can handle ceilings and other structures with large areas lacking support while setting.

    • by idji ( 984038 )
      Mortar is poured in from above into the hollow bricks.
      • >Mortar is poured in from above into the hollow bricks.

        I missed that step, and I'm fascinated to find out how that gets between the bricks, and doesn't waste a LOT of mass either making the bricks mostly solid or filling their voids with mortar.

        I'll have to watch the video again and pay closer attention.

    • I will be building a house this year and would kill for a solid masonry brick home. These veneers that people use on building these days I just don't understand...
      • >I will be building a house this year and would kill for a solid masonry brick home.

        If you're building it, it seems like (subject to money, skill, and building codes) there's a much simpler solution than killing for it!

        As a LEGO enthusiast, I'd kill for click-together bricks made from an appropriate hard rubber compound. It's been done once or twice but never seriously. The idea, however, of simply assembling my house to taste once I have a concrete pad and utility hookups is fascinating to me. Disass

        • Such innovations have a tough path to widespread use. They must be shown to meet building codes and statndards, which are often localized to account for regional differences in weather, events, and geology. If you are not using standard materials, then you may need special engineering analysis/approval to verify the suitability of the product for that purpose, which are big cost adders. Also, you may have trouble getting loans for houses using unproven techniques. In short, there are a lot of obstacles in
        • You may want to look into structural insulated panels if you haven't. While not quite what you were thinking they are closer.
      • Look into insulating concrete forms.
    • by swb ( 14022 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @11:23AM (#55063311)

      I think it's important to differentiate between bricks (dark, historically clay-fired) and concrete blocks.

      I don't think bricks are used for structural features anymore, but concrete block still is used for foundations and sometimes walls. The challenge for concrete block, though, is even in large scale construction where you would use them they already face competition from poured concrete and precast concrete panels. I think both are structurally sounder and allow rapid assembly of large buildings. Most new warehouses or industrial buildings made from concrete are built this way.

      I live in an older neighborhood that's seen a fair amount of teardown new construction and the basement foundations are almost universally made from form-based poured concrete from what I've seen. In the types of construction where concrete block is still used, the scale often seems small -- a limited set of block courses before switching to wood or steel framing.

      I'm not sure how much robotics works in this market.

      • >I live in an older neighborhood that's seen a fair amount of teardown new construction and the basement foundations are almost universally made from form-based poured concrete from what I've seen. In the types of construction where concrete block is still used, the scale often seems small -- a limited set of block courses before switching to wood or steel framing. I'm not sure how much robotics works in this market.

        I can see a future where a surveyor stakes out four corners of the foundation as referenc

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          I think automating foundations is probably not very likely considering the amount and complexity of robotics involved relative to what's already being saved in the traditional poured concrete method.

          Soil variability makes automated excavation a challenge, you really need a person doing the digging to deal with small-scale variations in soil conditions (dig more here, dig less there) or with unknown stuff under a re-purposed building site (abandoned utilities or foundations).

          Existing poured foundations are a

    • The video in the article shows a rather large device laying bricks according to plan.

      As a mechanical engineer, my first thought was, "How much fuel does it take to move that massive thing!"

      A couple of human bricklayers can't be that expensive compared to that fuel guzzling beast. I thought we were trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

      • >As a mechanical engineer, my first thought was, "How much fuel does it take to move that massive thing!"

        That didn't even occur to me. I think you'd have to compare its carbon footprint to that of an average human worker. Maybe it's actually more efficient per brick! (Though I think that unlikely)

        My actual first thought was much more ridiculous. I'd like to see a smaller robot, perhaps able to carry just a half-dozen bricks and mortar, that could crawl along brickwork laying a new row behind it and ei

        • I think there are definitely more elegant solutions to that problem. Maybe a robot that runs along some scaffolding. Human brick layers need scaffolding too.
  • Not much bricklaying in Silicon Valley. Will the robot be able to lay 1,000 cinder blocks, place horizontal rebars every other course and tie them to the vertical rebars, and then grout the wall?
  • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @09:13AM (#55062447) Homepage Journal

    Seismic activity is increasing for reasons both man-made and natural. Just what we need, more brick facades!

  • To dole out cash payments to building inspectors to pass their work. The construction industry, developers, and government inspectors are all very corrupt.
    • by judoguy ( 534886 )
      Just add an ATM and you're ready to go. Cards are issued as part of the permit application.
  • That's a pretty cool robot but I have to wonder how useful it is to stack bricks without mortar or rebar. Most civilized building codes (or for that matter sane buyers) would not let you occupy a structure that is not reinforced. Particularly in earthquake prone regions.

    Maybe that's part of the job that humans are still supposed to do. It is a step in the right direction.

  • Brick layers should worry.

    These machines do not get tired;

    they do not ask for over time;

    they do not need "days-off';

    they do not engage in office "politics";

    They will work exactly as programmed.

    Those are some of the benefits. I am sure there are more. Question is: What will present brick layers do?

    • >What will present brick layers do?

      Bricklayers (the highly skilled ones) will simply work smaller jobs or oversee the robots while the lesser bricklayers will be looking for other work.

      The transition will take the better part of a generation anyway, so mostly it will be attrition that takes care of the labour problem. I don't see these robots decimating the industry in less than a couple of decades.

    • Kyle Reese:

      Listen, and understand! That Brickernator is out there! It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't take smoke breaks, sick days, or catcall women walking down the street! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until that house is built!

      • or catcall women walking down the street!

        Do those folks still do this stuff?

        • Do those folks still do this stuff?

          The more suave bricklayers can look into a woman's eye halfway across the construction site and make her blush as she walks down the sidewalk without ever saying a word.

    • Brick layers should worry.

      Question is: What will present brick layers do?

      That is the other half of the equation. and one that needs addressed and soon. But it is ignored, in the manner of "We'll drive off that cilff when we come to it".

      That this automation of almost all jobs is coming - the only way it won't happen is if we bomb ourselves back to the stone age, and will need actual human labor to survive.

      But there will be a metric shitload of excess population that will have to be dealt with. And not all options are helpful to the top tier of players. We are looking at a ch

      • by lgw ( 121541 )

        That this automation of almost all jobs is coming

        Sure, over the next couple of centuries. Of course, almost all jobs that people were doing a century or two ago are automated now.

        Real-world infrastructure isn't the internet. Manufacturing facilities may have 25-year replacement cycles (but them, that's almost all automated already). Construction equipment and techniques change similarly slowly. Humans a resistant to change in their daily activities, and most still prefer a human cashier, meaning generations to fully automate that job even if we had th

  • Say what you will, but automation of most jobs seems likely to occur as soon as companies can get their hands on the machines to replace their pesky human counterparts. Bricklaying is a repetitive, labor intensive chore ripe for the transition, yet there are undoubtedly bricklayers out there who would deny their job can be done by robotics.

    I've noticed a lot of people are pretty sure the job they do is unlikely to be replaced by a machine.

    • I hate to have to tell you this but MOST jobs were automated before you were born. As a result, no one has done them, except as entertainment, in decades and in some cases centuries.
      As an example, a simple medieval style shirt used to cost about $3,000 to make at today's minimum wage..
      • It takes about 7 hours of fairly hard work to sew that shirt by hand.
      • It takes about 7 times as long, or about 49 hours, to weave the cloth to sew into that shirt, again, by hand.
      • It takes 7 times THAT, or about 399 hours, t
  • There's no point in having a robot move bricks a human can move. Human sized bricks are human sized, because humans suck for moving something bigger.

    Show me a robot that just places an entire wall in one go.

    • There's no point in having a robot move bricks a human can move.

      Dude, it's all about the money. While humans can do what you suggest, robots need no overtime or days off or politics.
       
      In fact, They work better than human beings who will [sometimes] strike over pay.

    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

      There's no point in having a robot move bricks a human can move. Human sized bricks are human sized, because humans suck for moving something bigger.

      Show me a robot that just places an entire wall in one go.

      Supply chain and workforce integration. By using standard sized bricks you can have a robot working alongside or supplementing human bricklayers without unnecessarily complicating purchasing and shipping of materials. Businesses further up the supply chain would also have to adjust their manufacturing process to make these larger bricks, further complicating their business and adding unnecessary costs. There is also the aesthetic component: people like the look of standard sized bricks.

    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @10:29AM (#55062897) Homepage Journal

      I think you have to ask "why brick at all?" Anything you do with brick you can do with concrete. Architects love concrete for its possibilities, but normal humans prefer the traditional look of brick.

      And while you're talking about 3D printing, concrete as a 3D printing medium is coming along nicely, and is in the very early adopter stage where people who use it do so because it creates things that look different. But early adopters, while crucial in the tech adoption curve, aren't where you make money. You make money selling to the masses, and the masses are conservative.

      Take concrete block construction; this does exactly what you suggest, make the construction cheaper and faster by using larger units. I live in a block house, and it would not be a whit better if it were made from bricks instead, but it'd be worth a lot more because people know concrete block construction is cheaper than brick.

      So the advantage of a robot that lays conventional-looking bricks isn't functional. It's economic. Brick-laying robots create structures that have greater value than ones made by block-laying or concrete extruding robots.

      • That's why my preferred solution is stamped concrete made to look like brick. It's already commonly used for pavement purposes like sidewalks and such.

        • Yeah, stamping is used for _horizontal_ surfaces, because you can't really stamp a design into a _vertical_ surface. If it's soft enough to stamp, it tends to flow downhill. Yes, there are vertical walls that are stamped, but I believe they are stamped when horizontal, then pulled up into place after they cure.
    • There's no point in having a robot move bricks a human can move. Human sized bricks are human sized, because humans suck for moving something bigger.

      You can only fire clay into a brick up to a certain size. Above that size and you can't get the center of the brick to properly convert from clay to brick. Standard bricks were already pushing that limit, which is why modern standard bricks have holes in them.

      To make a much larger brick, you need to make them hollow. At which point, you are making a much more expensive and weaker concrete block.

  • by bobstreo ( 1320787 ) on Tuesday August 22, 2017 @09:38AM (#55062551)

    The real money will be Trimbots, who's purpose is to cover up all the mistakes of all the other constructionbots.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I watched the clip about them on TV. Their claim was that the robot could 3000 a day, but a human could only do 1000. THEN they said that the robot needed 2 people to follow it and clean things up. So, 1 robot at 3000 plus two guys at 0 = 3 workers at 3000 = not a damn bit faster than current speed. Yes, they got a robot to do a new task, but it's not any faster than current.

  • Real estate is one of the few areas where prices (especially in the last couple decades) have inflated WAY beyond what they've historically been, and I wonder if part of that is because we're still building houses with a lot of the same old inefficiencies that we've always had. Bringing some serious automation into the sector could be a good thing for prices, however, that threatens one of the few remaining industries where someone could come straight out of high school and start a decent career.

  • if it can't do work of at least the quality of a skilled, experienced, and talented bricklayer, then it doesn't matter how fast it can do it.
    Go talk to an actual bricklayer. He'll tell you that he could work a lot faster -- if no one cares what the quality of the work looks like. Almost anyone can hurry up and do something fast, but it'll likely be sloppy looking when they get done, and it might not even hold together properly.

    Keep in mind that, the last time I checked, they still can't build a robot th
  • They just ditched their shovels and I doubt you will find any construction workers that bitch about the "good ole shovel days".
    This is no different if you watched the video yes the robot works faster then people but it also has a considerable setup time for the sensors and lasers that guide it. Also they need people to load it with bricks and mortar at regular intervals as well. So don't go running away from the trades because there's a new tool on the construction site.
  • I thought 3D printing with concrete was the future of the construction industry!
  • Here's the problem: the most expensive bricks are more expensive because they are non-uniform. People like variations in size, color, and texture. Robots are only good at doing everything the same, and would only be able to work with uniform bricks.
  • The ability of a machine with an arm to know the position of the end of that arm in space and link it to a location in a plan has many uses in construction, even as similar robotics does in manufacturing smaller things. Just by using this technology to limit an excavator from digging where it should not would allow many property owners to rent a mini-excavator and dig out a basement, make a drainage ditch with an exact slope, etc.

    The brick laying attachment on the end of these machines will be out of a job
  • I noticed a couple things that might need further refinement, Proof of Concept, and last but not least Logistics it in the middle of a city. I'll catch the results on YouTube.

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