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Build it, SAM – Check out the Robotic bricklayer

Those of you who remember Auf Wiedersehen Pet might recall a scene Jimmy Nail’s character Oz taking on Site Manager, Herr Ulrich, over his right to have a tea break whenever he wanted, as long as there was no shortfall in the number of bricks laid at the end of working day.

Had Construction Robotics’ semi-automated mason (SAM) been an option for the BEKO building site in Dusseldorf back in 1983, Oz might have thought twice about being so confrontational about his unscheduled tea breaks.

Founded 2007 with the aim of bringing robotics and automation to onsite construction, Construction Robotics created SAM – a semi-automated bricklaying robot that is designed to work collaboratively with a mason.

Scott Peters, Co-Founder of Construction Robotics, said the project threw up two initial issues that needed to be overcome.

Mr Peters said: “How do we handle the mortar and how do accurately place a brick with a robot? Robots are typically bolted to a concrete floor where everything is very predictable around it. When you go to a job site, everything is dynamic.

“You take a robot, you put it on upon a mast climbing work platform, it’s moving around very dynamically in the wind and as people walk around. As the robot goes to the wall, it’s going to follow that.”

To overcome this, a sensing system was built that follows a laser that’s fixed to a building and adjusts for any movement to the working platform. Mr Peters commented: “It corrects it and accurately places that brick every single time.”

The process of adding mortar to bricks needed to be considered. SAM does this by approaching the task in a different fashion from a mason.

Mr Peters described the process: “With the mortar, what we do is very different from what the mason does. We apply the mortar to the brick. So as the robot picks up the brick, it applies the mortar to it and places it at the wall. We can measure and temper the mortar, and ensure any different type of mortar is handled very consistently and reliably.”

SAM is controlled and operated via wireless handheld device, which can have map files uploaded to it via USB.

Mortar is fed into a hopper. There are two brick feeds, allowing for half bricks and decorative bricks to be loaded into the machine.

As one brick is being laid, the next brick is being measured so it knows the exact dimensions of that brick.

The robot can lay bricks ranging from modular to utility-sized and is powered by propane. Two gas tanks are fitted, allowing for one to be replaced without shutting off the machinery.

A number of features are included on the robot to ensure the safety of those working with it.

A safety door shuts down the machinery when opened should the operator wish to enter the work area.

A safety wheel also means that once the end of the scaffolding has been reached or an obstruction detected, it will drop down and stop the system.

SAM also includes sensors, bumpers, warning lights and sounds and an emergency stop.

Construction Robotics has created a piece of user-friendly software to work in conjunction with SAM to design brick walls and include elements such as window and door opening openings.

When it comes to operating SAM on the construction site, there is a three-step process.

The first stage involves setting up the Hydro-Mobile and attaching the tracks. The tracks are able to be installed within 30 minutes and don’t need to be removed for the duration of the work on site. Sam is then loaded onto the Hydro-Mobile using a tele-handler.

The second step sees measurement information uploaded to SAM. Once the ‘recipe’ file is uploaded, measurements need to be taken to indicate where the windows, control joints and any detailing works are located.

Mr Peters explains: “The measurements allow for horizontal correction within a given space. Taking into account, job-site variation that transitions from very predictable, theoretical wall map to an actual wall map you can build a wall to.”

Once the measurements process is complete, step three sees bricks and mortar loaded into SAM and the robot shown where the laser system is.

The mason’s role during operation is to keep Sam loaded while the system works independently, which it is capable of doing for hours at a time.

So what does this mean for your average brickie?

In the first series climax of Auf Wiedersehen Pet, just before the lads’ hut burns down, Oz stands with a beer in his hand and looks around the construction site, admiring the hard work craftsmanship that had gone into the building. Oz says: “See all this here. We built all this; our skill and labour. No computer will ever be able to take the place of us. Last for a thousand years this will, you know. I tell you, there’ll always be a place for skilled labour.”

The good news for the likes of Oz is that although part of the bricklaying method may now becoming autotomized, the likes of SAM still require human operation – whether it be designing the brick walls, measuring on-site, operating the equipment and loading the bricks.

Skill sets may change, but competent, skilled workers will always be in demand.

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