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A stone carving resurgence: Monumental Labs uses robotic arms for ornamental building facades

Don Procter
A stone carving resurgence: Monumental Labs uses robotic arms for ornamental building facades
MONUMENTAL LABS — Monumental Labs uses robotic equipment to carve intricate details in stone in an inkling of the time it takes to do by hand. At the plant in Mount Vernon, N.Y., seven-axis industrial robotic arms equipped with diamond tip mill bits create carvings that can make up or be part of the facades of modern buildings.

A New York City-based tech entrepreneur says it is time to rethink the concrete, steel and glass approach to the design of new towers in New York.

Micah Springut suggests turning back the clock to an era where ornamental stone was popular on building facades before the post-war Bauhaus movement influenced a major shift to the modernist glass box.

Springut, who has come a long way from an amateur stone carver armed with hammer and chisel, is the founder and CEO of Monumental Labs, a company that uses robotic equipment to carve intricate details in stone in an inkling of the time it takes to do by hand.

At his plant in Mount Vernon, N.Y., seven-axis industrial robotic arms equipped with diamond tip mill bits “that move very fast to remove layers of stone” create carvings that can make up or be part of the facades of modern buildings.

Patterns are created through a digital design input into PowerMill, an AutoDesk program, and fed into a simulator.

Outfitting the plant with the robotics cost $300,00 to $400,000, he says.

 

Patterns are created through a digital design input into PowerMill, an AutoDesk program, and fed into a simulator.
MONUMENTAL LABS — Patterns are created through a digital design input into PowerMill, an AutoDesk program, and fed into a simulator.

 

Most of the company’s product is limestone from Indiana but Monumental also uses other materials such as granite.

Springut says the manufacturing process makes stone economically competitive with modern materials and it is 96 per cent less carbon intensive than concrete.

Monumental Labs recently replaced three of four weathered brownstone balcony front facing ornate stone panels and some return panels at Villard Houses, a 1880s hotel in Manhattan.

The company has other historic restoration projects on the go but Monumental is also focused on façade details on new builds. A current installation features six carved statues and gargoyles on the façade of a university building under construction. 

He says stone carving done with robotics saves significant time over traditional carving methods. 

An architectural bust carved and finished typically in a month or two by hand can be milled by Monumental’s robots in about two days. Add a couple of more days for hand finishing details.

While ornamental stone went out of style in the post-war era partly because of the high cost of labor, robotics makes it price competitive with other materials today. 

Springut says Monumental could carve the pair of large stone lions at the entrance to the New York Public Library for about $200,000.  In 1911 they cost the equivalent of $415,000 in today’s dollars to complete.

 

Monumental Labs recently replaced three of four weathered brownstone balcony front facing ornate stone panels and some return panels at Villard Houses, a 1880s hotel in Manhattan.
MONUMENTAL LABS — Monumental Labs recently replaced three of four weathered brownstone balcony front facing ornate stone panels and some return panels at Villard Houses, a 1880s hotel in Manhattan.

 

The new technology, however, has come under some criticism from old-school carvers who see it taking away jobs.

“I tell them we’ll be hiring 30 hand carvers over the next couple of years. There will be so much more artwork, so much more restoration and new builds that it will be a massive expansion of the people who can get into stonework as a career.”

Monumental is not just about ornamental stonework. The founder is working on structural stone building designs that he sees as price competitive with concrete and steel.

“We’re ditching the need to fireproof them, weatherproof them and the need to tack on additional cladding material,” he says.

The company plans to announce a partnership on the initiative soon and follow-up by showcasing its first structural stone building. 

Test data from the building will be used to obtain approvals from government building departments across the U.S., he says.

Monumental Labs isn’t alone in its desire to see more stone buildings. 

“Almost everything going up on the Upper East Side up is clad in limestone,” he says. “We can do that cheaper and with a lot higher level of detail.”

Springut says his company is outgrowing its facility which has only enough space for two robots and cutting equipment. It plans to raise capital for a facility that could accommodate up to 15 robots and mechanical cutting equipment.

“We’ll be able to do much larger projects and entire facades.”

The company has a staff of nine but expects to hire 40 to 50 more people over the next year.

“The long-term goal is to be able to build cities with the splendor of Paris, Florence or pre-war New York, and do it at a fraction of the cost.”

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