Robots Help in $52M IL Housing Project


Currently, the Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois is undergoing a $52 million project and is slated to add 166,000 square feet of new barracks for military personnel by October 2020.

Having only launched the project last March, the project’s general contractor, Clark Construction Group (Bethesda, Maryland) and partner Blinderman Construction (Chicago) are utilizing two of Construction Robotics’ (Victor, New York) machines for the job.

The robots, called “MULE” (for Material Unit Lift Enhancer) and “SAM” (for Semiautomated Mason), are being used in tandem for the construction project, which is a reported first for projects in the U.S.

About the Technology

A MULE completes all the heavy lifting—raising and placing foundation blocks weighing up to 135 pounds—while SAM can lay bricks at a pace of one every seven to 10 seconds. (SAM can also lay bricks in complex patterns and color sequences.)

A MULE costs anywhere between $70,000-80,000, while a SAM is generally leased by the week, month or longer, as each project is different and will require customized software coding.

In order to better understand the technology, Construction Robotics launched a training program in 2018. According to Building Design + Construction, MULEs are generally easy to operate and can feel like an extension of your own hand. However, SAMs are reported to be a more complicated machine that requires three-to-five days of training to properly operate.

Since launching in 2007, Construction Robotics has employed over 130 MULEs in the field and 11 SAMs, according to its President and Cofounder, Scott Peters. The company has worked with over 80 local and big-name contractors, and its machines have reportedly helped to install more than one million square feet of wall.

According to Tyler Shawcross, Clark’s Senior Project Manager, his company first met with Construction Robotics about five years ago to discuss “ways to build smarter.”

Already in a position where masonry is experiencing a labor shortage and not attracting younger employees, Peters and Shawcross believe that the new technology has the potential to extend the work longevity of masons and could also inspire younger workers to consider the profession.

“We see it as an opportunity to drive cost certainty into a project,” said Shawcross. “I don’t think it’s a large cost reducer, but it could be a scheduling reducer.”

However, Construction Robotics claims that SAMs can reduce labor cost by at least 30%, and during a different project, a MULE was used to move concrete form panels into place. Additionally, the machines show most promise when they are factored into the building process in early planning stages.

“It’s one of those rare products that provides both speed and safety,” concluded Shawcross.

Robots in the Industry

Last month, a multidisciplinary robotics team was reported to be working at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering to design autonomous systems for 3D printers intended for future mobile construction projects.

In a concept called "collective additive manufacturing," the researchers plan to create a functioning team of robots, equipped with printers, machine learning and various artificial intelligence capabilities. Once developed, the mobile 3D printers would work in tandem to complete tasks such as bridge or tunnel repairs, deep ocean work, disaster relief, construction and rebuilding efforts.

The project is supported by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Reported this summer, another company supporting the use of robotics in construction, Mortenson (Minneapolis), announced a partnership with tech startup Built Robotics (San Francisco) to automate some of the construction company’s equipment.

According to the Engineering News-Record, plans for the equipment include autonomous retrofits for dozers, skid steer loaders and excavators. Eric Sellman, Vice President and General Manager for heavy civil construction, also noted that the agreement is long term, a move to continue to expand the deployment of such machines in renewable energy work.

In the year prior, researchers based out of ETH Zurich University created a robotic construction method, which was used to create a computer-designed modular house.

The Spatial Timber Assemblies project uses computers to design individual units, beginning with a robot sawing timber beams down to the correct size. This innovative construction process is made possible thanks to collaboration between ETH Zurich, architectural research unit Gramazio Kohler Research and timber construction firm ERNE AG Holzbau.


Tagged categories: Commercial / Architectural; Commercial Construction; Commercial contractors; Construction; Contractors; Maintenance + Renovation; Masonry; NA; North America; Projects - Commercial; Robotics; Technology

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