Brick Laying Robot Does It Better

Meet SAM, the Semi Automated Mason. SAM can lay bricks three times faster than a normal brick layer. SAM isn’t planning on taking away any jobs yet though — it still needs a human mason following behind to clean up the mortar.

The robot consists of a standard 6-axis industrial robot arm mounted to a track system with a conveyor belt style feeder of bricks. It picks up each brick, covers the side with mortar, and places it next to the last brick it laid. A mason still has to do the tricky parts, like corners and aesthetics — but SAM is getting better — it can very easily follow a pixelated map of an image and place bricks up to half an inch in or out from the wall, to create a embossed image.

SAM.2x519

Is this the beginning of the robotic workforce? An Australian company has another robot called Hadrian, which apparently can build a house made of 15,000 bricks in about two days — it is still a prototype though. We’ve also seen a concept for a brick layer attachment for an excavator. As for SAM, the company (Construction Robotics) will start selling the system this fall for about $500,000 a pop.

[via reddit]

60 thoughts on “Brick Laying Robot Does It Better

      1. Plus you could lock-in the speed at fast and force them to go at a good rate… and have a line of workers waiting in line to replace them whenever they had enough of this repetitive job

    1. it’s only laying one brick at a time because wall-bricking has to be seated and mortared firmly on each brick. you don’t want to mechanically reference the existing wall, because then you’re liable to knock the wall out of line. the machine in the video is dry-laying bricks for a pathway, which are then sand-gapped. sand is spread over them and then swept down and tamped into the cracks

      1. Seems to me like it’s not putting enough mud in the frog, seems a bit light in general. I wonder if it’s programmable for different porosities… more porous bricks take up the moisture more quickly, leaving less time to adjust things and do any cleanup.

  1. Its not replacing a bricklayer, its replacing two. Think about this, it can work 3x the speed of a bricklayer, but still requires one to come along and trim the mortar and point it etc.
    But… most of the time in laying a brick is in putting a bed of mortar down and laying the brick itself, tinkering with the position etc. I’ve laid a couple of brick walls, although I’m definitely not in the pro class, but I’ve worked as a builders mate keeping one fed with mix and blocks.
    So, working construction, you can put SAM to work, and have it lay x3 bricks in the same timeframe and one bricklayer can come along and point the finished article and sam+brickie does the output of 3 bricklayers. If you watch the gif the brickie doing the pointing is keeping pace with SAM to bear this out.
    So, for now, only 2/3rds the bricklayers will be out of work. Until it can point and do the fine detail.
    Jobs will be created, but in setting up a SAM unit, and there will always be edge cases when the amount of effort to hire/site a SAM will outweigh the time to just lay bricks by hand, but on large construction sites, the bricklaying gang’s days may well be limited.
    Such is the advancement of automation. I thought the same thing had already begun to happen to plasterers on new build, just requiring human input for the fine detail after a robot does the bulk of the work.

    1. So the robot sets itself up, maintains itself, and certainly never has any follow-up cost altogether. Good to know. Well, let’s have him lay the outer decorative layer of bricks of any house in the future. I wonder, who laid the inner layer? How many masons, let alone helpers can you hire for how long, for half a million?

      1. You know, the robot doesn’t have to be chucked away after one house. It isn’t disposable.
        Likewise the human “maintainer” wont be there 24/7 by the machine – it could be one maintenance guy split over a large number of machines at different sites.
        It all depends very much on how reliable they can be made, trying to guage on principle without that information is useless.

        Or, in other words “this combine harvester thing wont catch on….its far more expensive then a few people, and whos going to maintain it? whos going to feed the house? useless!”

      2. You could say the same thing about the gigantic fully automatic power looms that weave cloth. The key to it is volume. Making an absolute shitload of product pays for the capital outlay soon enough. And a machine that can do twice as much, generally doesn’t cost twice as much.

      3. Site clerks will do a survey and when the numbers work in the bot’s favour vs people that have days off/don’t turn in/dont like cold weather/get tired/need to stop to feed etc, the meatbags will be gone. And don’t discount running that machine for 24/7, or operating multiple units. Hire companies will carry one in their standard machine hire ranges when it becomes finacially viable and clarke of works will just hire in extra units to cover off a job in whatever timescale is needed. Hire companies will charge x units per day, and sell off the units aged a year or two, and the difference in their purchase price – (secondhand value+profit) will be what the hire cost will be. One setup operator might service 20 machines, and moves be staggered to keep them busy. It might end up being one of the surveyors since they already assist with accurately locating features, or a specialist company like come in to errect a high accuracy laser line source used across site.

        I squashed out the fluid of my knees over a couple of months when I was in my teens because it turned out to be 50c a day cheaper to hire the heavyweight strongbacks than the lightweight hand portable ones on one building site, and I had to carry the damn things round on site all day between moulds as the labourer up to my waist in wet trenches and pits. I still have slightly fubar knee’s today. There’s no ethics, just numbers on a spreadsheet.
        Also, this is a new concept, mk2 will be better, and mk3 better again.
        I make no judgement on if this is a bad or good thing, its humanity going through changes, although a part of me wondered what all those unemployed bricklayers are going to be doing to earn a living instead to be able to afford all the new housing. Which won’t fall in price because pricing is by market expectations not actual cost.

        Like I suggested, we’re not talking popping round to build a garden wall or do some repairs in this scenario, we’re talking mass produced house building sites where entire estates are thrown up in a short period of months heavily assisted by whatever technology can make the job quicker and cheaper.

        1. Bricks have been replaced by concrete blocks, blocks by aerated concrete panels, aerated concrete panels by metal faced foam insulation panels.

          Virtually the only place that bricks are used these days is in residential construction due to the complicated geometries requuired for houses.

          When one designs a robot it is a nieve idea to build one that works and looks like a man.

          Instead one should look at the material and say how could this be done better.

          1. And even when brick is used in the US these days, it rarely a structural element. It is often just a fascia or decorative feature. In the US brick has been largely replaced by the items you mentioned due to the lower cost of both the materials and the manpower needed.

      4. You are so naive.

        Of course there are jobs left, but they’ll be far less. Better paid? perhaps, but the total sum will be less (otherwise nobody is going to shell out the capital to finance the expensive robot development). And the “better paid” part will eventually fade off as well.

        Just think of farm workers. End of the 18th century, over 80% of the US working population was in farming. Today it’s less than 3%.

        If we as humankind knew how to enjoy this new leisure, it’d be fine, but what happens is that we start a bitter competition where less and less work more and more, and there is a growing amount of “superfluous” population.

        Today already EU overproduction in chicken meat is putting small African farmers out of their jobs, pushing the lesser quality meat at an obscenely low price, courtesy of “free trade agreements”. Where do you think those new wave of immigrants trying to enter EU are coming from?

        We’re desperately in need of new ideas on how to manage work and wealth — otherwise it’s going to get ugly quickly.

    2. Indeed.
      Theres almost always new jobs created, but not in the same proportion that they are lost.
      Its the pattern of human advancement for generally repetitive tasks to be slowly replaced, as those are the jobs where we are treating humans like machines to start with.

    3. Going to agree, and the math in the main article is a bit non-nonsensical..
      “—a human mason can lay about 300 to 500 bricks a day, while SAM can lay about 800 to 1,200 bricks a day. One human plus one SAM equals the productivity of having four or more masons on the job.”

      So it’s actually ~2.5x as fast as one mason, and the extra mason cleaning up after it counts as nothing towards the figure because he isn’t even laying any bricks!

      4 masons = 1200 to 2000 BAD(Brick A Day)

      1. Oh man, a Piketty reference on HaD. Nailed, uhhh, mortared it!

        This is the usual productivity-increasing invention, which transfers production from labour to a capital-intensive item. If you depend entirely on your labour for a living, you’re f*cked but if you own the means of production, you’re set. That’s not an inherently bad thing – the standard of living really can only increase through improved productivity, and automation is the primary means of improving productivity.

        However, it does mean that politics has a lot of catching up to do, and we need to move on from the “work defines a person’s value” ethos that the world currently runs on, because there just will not be enough work to keep more than a couple of percent of the population entertained.

        Consider that in less than 200 years we will be entirely resource-constrained unless we get off the planet, which means it will not be possible to grow the economy in real terms. Productivity, e.g. through automated bricklaying, automated nearly-everything, will mean that probably 2% to 5% of the population working full-time can operate the entire economy and support the other 98%. How do you allocate the return from that production amongst the population, when there simply isn’t the physical possibility for most of the population to participate in the production? Hint: the current American system will not work.

          1. @Dave about “self limiting population”.
            Do expect that it will append nicely?
            I expect wars and genocide even worse than what was the 20th century.
            I consider the green curve of the graphic overoptimistic. The population will have dropped more than that before the end of this century.

          2. @Jacques1956 – I don’t think it will append nicely. But most modern countries have population limitation controls in place, like Japan and China. Other countries, like Germany and the US are starting to stabilize their population growth rates. Population growth often occurs during times of prosperity, unless the government of that country has some restriction on family size.

  2. Okay, sorry, that was a wee bit snarky. Let me do it better:

    “you can put SAM to work, and have it lay x3 bricks”

    From the article: “a human mason can lay about 300 to 500 bricks a day, while SAM can lay about 800 to 1,200 bricks a day”. So that robot, still requiring a human mason to do the cleanup after it, barely replaces a third worker.

    While you can’t possibly judge it from the GIFs, the video is more telling:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKoQMD0QZQs
    you pretty much have to assume the number comes from the robot working more than 8 hours. It’s certainly not faster than a mason, let alone a skilled one.

    Factor in that you’d probably need much more than a mason to set it up, maintain it, and take it down afterwards, and all of that for a HUGE cost overhead … I would say for the time being, the meatbag workforce is pretty safe.

    1. Thanks for the actual video.

      I guess, as usual with new automation, first it’s only economically reasonable in a few special cases, then it takes years of improvement and cost-reduction before it’s in widespread use. Thing is, as soon as you can solve enough of use cases you can start production and sell them, both funding more development and proving the market. Maybe this thing makes sense if you are building gym halls for schools or something.

      I feel people usually focus to much on wide-spread applicability of new automation rather than the question of if there are enough of cases where it make sense to have sell a system. So, the majority of the workforce would still be safe, as you say, for quite a few years.

  3. I don’t understand why you need to have two walls side-by-side but not anchored or mortered to each other. I would think you would add more strength to the wall if you cosslinked the bricks to the cinderblocks.

    1. The air gap is to keep the wet wall (rain) away from the dry wall. Both walls would have a layer of plastic the damp proof layer about 6 inches above ground level to any moisture in the foundation from soaking through osmosis into the interior of the house.

    2. The small brick is only a facade brick, it’s purely architectural (and provides a weather barrier) the block behind it is the actual structure. The structural block will have metal straps protruding out of it that the masons will place in the layers of the facade brick to tie the two walls together.
      I would say (at least in north america) that most brick you see is not structural but purely a fascade placed in front of the actual structure of the building. It’s very rare to see architectural masonry work done as part of the actual super structure of a building anymore.

      1. if you look at the gif you can see those ties in above the red brick, also notice that there is a sheet of insulation separating the two layers that will provide r-value as well as a vapor barrier.

  4. I wonder if a full arm with that much freedom is needed? Some more customised, specialised system would be better, I’d think. Something that plops out bricks after mortaring them, gives them a little press, and a scan with a laser to make sure they’re in the right place. If not, then another press from the sideways or top-down presser unit.

    Being able to pop up a building in a couple of days might displace a few well-paid jobs, but it would also help drive house prices down, which desperately needs doing. With standardisation for things like pipes and electrics, you could make half of the fittings in a factory, ready to install. Building seems to be the last big trade to still use artisans, using a one-off model for each one. Must be lots of money to be made in fixing that.

    1. Even if these kinds of arms are expensive, they are already developed. If you are going to build say 10 of those the first year, the price of those ten arm won’t be that many engineering hour’s for the difference in price.

  5. i watched an old guy laying cider blocks to build a new room inside the building we worked in. He had 3, yes 3 helpers, 1 to mix the mortar and two guys carrying him blocks. He could lay blocks faster than the other 3 could get him supplies. While I myself am a big fan of technology, for brick or blocks, you need a guy that knows what he’s doing.

  6. Most of the most expensive/precious buildings today are built by pouring concrete to build the structure and there are cheaper ways to build inner walls than laying bricks. I’ve got yet to see a robot setting up boarding and steel reinforcements in a mess that is usual for any building site.

    1. I agree. I don’t see this being feasible in the sites I have been on. The robot needs a nice track to run on to maintain the alignment.
      And as you said, in the US brick is rarely used as a structural element. It is only used for fascia and decorative elements, and often those decorative elements have complex patterns and curves this thing is not economically suited to.

      1. There are good reasons why using brick for large structural elements is not a great idea. Ever try to build something the size of a house with LEGO? People have and it doesn’t work well for similar reasons.

      2. Still there’s PLENTY of buildings with a plain, boring, brick fascia. Particularly the UK, where nobody would buy a house made of wood. There’s plenty of houses being built of cinder blocks with a brick outer layer. Plain boring brick, all one colour.

        This is particularly true in cheaper houses, which is something Britain needs desperately. Certainly there’s a lot of people who’d miss out on a bit of decorative brick for a massive cost saving. And even then, even if you wanted the odd bit of decoration, you could either stop the machine and plop in a different-coloured brick where needed, or alternate the colour of bricks in it’s hopper. Maybe a more fancy model could have 2 brick hoppers to select from.

  7. Why is housing still so costly, given the many great technological advances in tools, work processes, prefab house structures, automatized manufactoring of parts and so on? In OECD countries the average adult spend 18% of their disposable income on housing and the number is even higher in the US alone. I get that in cities there is a lot of competition for housing in attractive locations which ramp up prices. But is that the only explanation or is there something else driving costs for housing?

  8. Actually this machine could take the place of 6 “brickies”, 2 per 8 hour shift over 24 hours. In other words it does the work of nine brick layers every 24 hours, and needs the assistance of three in the same period. Assuming it doesn’t need to sleep or keep to any form of maximum working hours…. so that $500,000 now gets divided by 6, to $83,000, if we now assume the machine keeps working for 5 years, the cost is now equivalent to paying human brick layers $16,000 per anum. Its starting to look pretty economically viable now… factor in spares and maintenance, it still looks pretty good. Bear in mind that these figures are comparable with for example 12 months of large crane hire at $30,000 per month… Large building projects will absorb this kind of cost readily.

  9. People have been inventing automated bricklaying machines since the Victorian era. Practically all of them have been demonstrated in ways that show them to be N times faster than human bricklayers for straight, flat walls laid up in the simplest possible pattern. None of them have replaced human bricklayers because buildings have things like doors and windows that require fitting.

    In most cases, even getting the machine to leave an opening that a human can finish is harder and slower than having a human lay up the whole wall.

    Putting it in terms that HaD users can relate to, this is like the endless series of application frameworks and code generators that have promised to make human programmers unnecessary. Non-programmers think, “hey, if the machine can do 90% of the work, surely the last 10% will be easy.” Actual programmers know that the last 10% is the hardest, and that it takes a good programmer to arrange the easy 90% so the last 10% is even possible.

    Same thing, but with bricks instead of code.

  10. Honestly, if you’re going for cheap and fast bricks, the modern method is to just cast the brick pattern into concrete and paint it. That’s what the Wisconsin DOT does at least. Of course then you are paying workers state wages to paint bricks one at a time with a tiny brush (multi-color brick pattern).

  11. The significant issue with attempting to automate the practice of brick laying, is it creates two problems in the construction trades that at present are not an issue. The first is that it puts work work on the architect to model the location and placement of every brick to a high degree of precision. At present we don’t have to do this, as it’s assumed that the mason has the knowhow and autonomy to work accordingly. The second issue, is that in the reality of building construction, it’s not necessarily always the case that every brick will fit, and it’s not necessarily the case that all bricks are uniform. (Far from it actually. despite many attempts at standardization, ultimately are futile as most architects will choose the brick appropriate for the job or is of matching aesthetic appeal.) Ans as such, it is rather common to have specialty bricks used in closing a course of bricks or used only in one run along a particular axis. It’s also pretty common to break bricks with a saw or masonry hammer to make them fit.

    So the general problem, is that in some ways the variety of solutions simply lack the flexibility and intelligence to supplant a few trained masons. In time perhaps. But for now, it’s greatest utility in laying bricks for exceedingly large brick structures of relative uniformity.

    But that’s just my two cents.

  12. I want to trust that this machine can truly account for all the challenges that come with laying bricks, but my intuition tells me to be skeptical. There’s so much involved in this trade that it surprises me people are fully on board with this concept. Yes it has potential and yes it could help reduce costs somewhere, but can it account for everything like a human can? Can it adjust and modify as things change around it. There’s always something in construction that’s slightly different than what you intended.

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