If the idea of humans working alongside construction robots seems so “next century,” meet SAM100, a bricklaying robot being readied to enter the construction market next year.
SAM stands for Semi-Automated Mason, and is the brainchild of Construction Robotics in Victor, N.Y. The company’s co-founders are Nathan Podkaminer, an architect and construction project manager and Scott L. Peters, an expert in robotics and advanced manufacturing technologies.
"We’ve been working on the design since 2007," says operations manager, Zak Podkaminer. "We started with the basics — laying brick and putting mortar on a brick."
The company’s goal was to build a robot agile enough to apply mortar to a brick, accurate enough to set the brick, light enough to be supported by a standard mast climbing system and agile enough to move back and forth along the wall face.
"The human brain is incredible and it’s challenging to replicate accurately what a bricklayer does," says Podkaminer. "A human bricklayer adjusts instantaneously for wind, other workers on the scaffold and other conditions. It took us two years just to perfect SAM’s ability to extrude mortar onto a brick."
However, robots excel at exacting, repetitive tasks over long stretches of time. Substituting a laser beam for a string line, SAM follows a CAD design, allowing precise placement of each brick from simple one-on-two placement to more complex designs. SAM requires three people to support it: the operator; a tender to feed bricks and mortar into the system; and a mason to fasten wall ties, clean up excess mortar and fine-tune minor variances.
"SAM was never designed to replace human masons," says Podkaminer. "Just like a traditional project, you still need a mason and a tender. The construction industry is facing a shortage of bricklayers and SAM is designed to augment the workforce."
SAM was put to the test at its first actual construction project in Victor in the fall of 2013, working alongside masons from Remlap Construction to build a section of wall forming the headquarters of Progressive Machine and Design.
"We interviewed the masons who were working with SAM and that allowed us to do more learning," says Podkaminer. "SAM performed its tasks, but we realized we needed to make SAM smaller, quieter, faster and more mobile."
Less than a year later, the company unveiled SAM100, a leaner, meaner incarnation of the robotic system. Slimmed down from an original 4,500 lbs. to just 3,300 lbs., the system is self-contained and powered by a Cummins propane-fired generator. It’s designed to integrate seamlessly with Quebec’s Hydro Mobile M2 Series mast climbing work platform system. Safety sensors prevent SAM from edging off the scaffold or bumping into workers.
"The whole Hydro Mobile team has been excellent in supporting our design efforts to ensure that SAM tracks quickly, easily, and safely attaches to multiple Hydro Mobile setups," says Podkaminer. "They were also very supportive in the early years while we were determining the design constraints of building a robotic system to work on mast climbers."
First assignment for the new SAM: working alongside masons on a five-storey barracks project at Fort Lee, Va.
"The contractor wasn’t using premix mortar so we had to tune the system to accept a new mortar mix prepared onsite using different additives," says Podkaminer. "At our best cycle time we were laying a brick every 20 or 25 seconds."
Mike Manning, Manning Construction president, the masonry sub-contractor working at Fort Lee, says workers treated SAM100 as an apprentice bricklayer.
"It’s still in development and we were very interested in helping the developers get the kinks out of the system," says Manning. "We gave them a lot of suggestions on how the system could be made more usable to a masonry contractor. I think it’s going to be a great thing for the industry."
Using data collected from the Fort Lee project, SAM100’s system software was updated before appearing in February at the World Of Concrete show in Las Vegas, where it won the Industry Choice award for Most Innovative Product.
"At the show we were up to 15 seconds a brick and we’re developing code to close in on 12 seconds a brick by June," says Podkaminer. "We’re determining if that’s the optimal speed, because if it goes any faster, it might require two tenders to supply SAM with bricks and mortar."
The system is undergoing further real-world testing with three masonry contractors starting this summer. Following the final trial, the company reckons that SAM100 will be ready for market in early 2016 at a price of US$650,000.
"We assume a one- to two-year payback period, depending on the type of work you assign to it," adds Podkaminer. "Contractors who assign SAM100 to long courses with larger and heavier bricks over longer shifts will see a faster payback."
SAM100’s appearance at World of Concrete within sight of the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 competition inspires the obvious question: could the robot trounce the human competitors?
"The best bricklayers in North America could still take SAM over the short run," says Podkaminer. "Any time they want to challenge SAM to a 24-hour competition, we’re ready."