Editorial Feature

Robots in Construction: Bricklaying

The timeless craft of bricklaying — spreading mortar, placing bricks, and smoothing joints — has remained unchanged for over 6,000 years since the earliest known kiln-fired bricks. However, the modern construction industry now faces immense challenges in maintaining productivity and quality while grappling with acute labor shortages and meeting ever-growing housing demand. In response, innovators are reimagining bricklaying through potentially revolutionary construction robotics and automation — augmenting and even fully automating intricate masonry tasks to enhance capacity, efficiency, consistency and sustainability amidst a transformative Industry 4.0 era.

Image Credit: bogubogu/Shutterstock.com

The Origins and Evolution of Bricklaying Robots

While visions of automated bricklayers emerged in early 20th-century patents, progress languished for decades beyond brief prototypes. However, recent exponential improvements in robotics, sensing and computing combined with intensifying construction pressures have reinvigorated development.

A 1960s mechanical mason called Motor Mason offered an early hint of future potential before abruptly vanishing. In 2015, Construction Robotics resurrected this promise through SAM (Semi-Automated Mason) - the first modern interactive robotic bricklayer able to work alongside human labor.

SAM alleviates intense manual labor by handling repetitive brick manipulation between a conveyor system and wall placement guided by integrated sensors, allowing workers to focus on skilled finishing tasks like excess mortar removal.

Fast forward, Australian firm Fastbrick Robotics (now FBR) pioneered Hadrian X - a radically advanced robotic system capable of complete autonomous operation, from dynamically grasping varying bricks to constructing entire structures by precisely "printing" courses based on 3D model specifications.

The Transformative Potential of Robotic Bricklayers

Robotic systems like SAM and Hadrian X bring astonishing productivity leaps, consistent quality, customization and sustainability to one of construction's most laborious, traditional trades.

Unmatched Productivity

Where a bricklayer may lay 300-500 bricks in a grueling day, SAM100 assists in achieving a daily output of up to 3000 bricks. Hadrian X surpasses SAM's collaborative pace, autonomously laying over 1,000 bricks per hour, resulting in a tenfold productivity gain. Their continual operation without breaks, fatigue or distraction solidifies further advantages.

Consistent Quality and Customization

Humans intrinsically create variability in brickwork quality - differences in mortar consistency, positioning, alignment or levelness. In contrast, integrated sensors and software analytics enable bricklaying robots to precisely place every brick in the planned layout to sub-millimeter accuracy, ensuring dimensional consistency and structural integrity.

Automated brick laying robot (ABLR) by Yorkshire-based construction automation ensures accurate brick placement, reducing the need for manual adjustments and minimizing errors in construction. The data generated by the robotic bricklayer integrates into project managers' material requirements planning (MRP) systems, optimizing scheduling and minimizing on-site wastage through coordinated material arrivals with QR codes.

This precision facilitates greater customization and aesthetic flexibility to meet architectural desires across brick shapes, bonding patterns, texturing and colors while maintaining quality - important in the shift towards mass-customized housing.

Sustainability

Software-level exact material quantity verification minimizes unnecessary brick overordering and associated waste. For example, Ballast Nedam's bricklaying robot applies mortar with remarkable efficiency, using only 455 grams per brick compared to the standard 1,000 grams employed by manual bricklayers. This approach leads to substantial material savings and environmental benefits.

Hadrian X uses specialist construction adhesives instead of standard mortar, slashing carbon emissions while providing four to five times superior strength - accelerating overall construction sustainability.

With global urbanization escalating housing demand against construction labor declines, automated bricklaying seems an apt solution to sustainably build faster, more precise and customizable residential and commercial structures through transformative technology.

Ongoing Developments Accelerating Mainstream Adoption

While robotic bricklayers display amazing potential, current systems are still evolving prototypes that have not yet been broadly adopted into mainstream construction. However, ongoing significant capability enhancements coupled with shifting industry mindsets appear set to enable the imminent integration of automation across suitable bricklaying projects.

Hardware and Software Improvements

Dynamic stabilization technology (DST), a patented system in Hadrian X, ensures precise block positioning in a 3D space by mitigating environmental factors such as wind and vibration. This stability allows the robot to maintain accuracy over significant distances and be adaptable for mounting on various bases, including barges, boats, cranes, and tracks, enabling efficient bricklaying in diverse locations.

Unlike previous crane-assisted versions, Hadrian X can now construct multi-story buildings from ground level via its extended 32-meter boom arm.

SAM100, surpassing its predecessor, features a mobile robotic arm, a built-in conveyor, and a concrete pump for flexible bricklaying. Equipped with data tracking, it provides daily performance reports, aiding bricklayers in optimizing construction strategies to enhance productivity and reduce labor efforts.

Global Industrial Partnerships

Mainstream incremental adoption looks imminent as FBR partners with major housing developers on upcoming residential estates, which was made possible by Hadrian X's speed and cost savings while meeting strict quality standards through extensive testing.

In 2021, FBR inked a "Wall as a Service" contract with Mexican firm GP Vivienda, deploying its Hadrian X robot to construct 2,000 to 5,000 homes in Mexico. This deal aims for faster, more accurate construction compared to human labor. Mike Pivac, FBR's managing director, sees this as an exciting entry into North America, anticipating substantial business growth.

FBR signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Saudi Arabia for a 50,000-home construction project. Additionally, a partnership with Wienerberger, an Austrian clay-block manufacturer, is in place to develop customized clay blocks for Hadrian X, with plans for a European pilot project.

Supportive Government Legislation

Importantly, recent governmental initiatives look set to propel the adoption of construction technology. For example, the 2020 EU Skills Agenda for Sustainable Competitiveness specifically highlights robotics in its reskilling and upskilling section to enhance workforce capability in member states.

Operational Risks and Challenges

Despite the promising potential, robotic bricklaying faces technological and adoption challenges requiring consideration.

Initial Cost Barriers

High upfront fabrication and operational costs may inhibit smaller contractors. However, major players are forging ahead - Hadrian X (AUD 2 million per unit) leases mitigate expenditure while funding options or scalable pricing models could assist broader access.

Social Acceptance Concerns

With bricklaying supporting millions of livelihoods globally, workforce anxiety regarding job automation and resistance to emerging technologies emerge. However, growing awareness of worsening labor shortages combined with roles in augmenting masons' abilities helps alleviate concerns.

Design and Workflow Integration Complexity

Development difficulties persist in robustly handling varied environmental conditions like wind or vibration. Seamlessly integrating automated workflows with supplementary human tasks in a unified coordinating platform remains an immense challenge.

Successfully embracing automation requires holistic operational changes, not just technology insertion - construction companies must review all planning, coordination, and quality management approaches to harness productivity benefits.

Envisioning the Future: Mainstream Robotic Bricklaying Processes

Given ongoing exponential improvements following Moore's Law trajectories in complementary Industry 4.0 technologies like 5G, AI, sensors, and connectivity, the mainstream integration of capable, proven construction robotics over coming years appears highly likely - an autonomous masonry revolution could arrive sooner than anticipated.

Revolutionary concepts like printable modular interlocking bricks optimized on-demand could see machine learning algorithms directly design novel parametric layouts customized to specification or additive/hybrid manufacturing, enabling highly articulated bricks with embedded functionality.

At a suitable scale with supporting ecosystems, a new generation of optimized intelligent building assistants may finally bring robotics' vast potential to bear in ancient construction crafts. Rather than making masons obsolete, digitally augmented trades could see superior outcomes transcending former building methods. That future remains difficult to predict conclusively, but the automated builder now looks closer than ever to liberation from the pages of science fiction into scaffolds at job sites of the 21st century and beyond.

References and Further Reading

Ballast Nedam. (2022). Bricklaying robot is ready for its first working days on site. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ballast-nedam.com/news/2022/bricklaying-robot-ready-for-construction-site

Cao, L. (2019). The Evolution of Bricklaying Robots: Changing the Rules of Traditional Construction. [Online]. Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/928440/the-evolution-of-bricklaying-robots-changing-the-rules-of-traditional-construction

Madsen, A. J. (2019). The SAM100: Analyzing labor productivity. Available at: https://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1275&context=cmsp

PMI. (2021). Construction Game Changer: Robot Bricklayer. [Online]. Available at: https://www.pmi.org/learning/publications/pm-network/digital-exclusives/robot-bricklayer

Potter, B. (2021). Where Are the Robotic Bricklayers? [Online]. Available at: https://www.construction-physics.com/p/where-are-the-robotic-bricklayers

Quirke, J. (2021). Hadrian the bricklaying robot to build thousands of walls in Mexico. [Online]. Available at: https://www.globalconstructionreview.com/hadrian-the-bricklaying-robot-to-build-thousands-of-walls-in-mexico/

Rina Diane Caballar. (2022). This Bricklaying Robot Is Changing the Future of Construction. [Online]. Available at: https://www.autodesk.com/design-make/articles/bricklaying-robot

Smisek, P. (2017). A Short History of "Bricklaying Robots." [Online]. Available at: https://www.theb1m.com/video/a-short-history-of-bricklaying-robots

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Owais Ali

Written by

Owais Ali

NEBOSH certified Mechanical Engineer with 3 years of experience as a technical writer and editor. Owais is interested in occupational health and safety, computer hardware, industrial and mobile robotics. During his academic career, Owais worked on several research projects regarding mobile robots, notably the Autonomous Fire Fighting Mobile Robot. The designed mobile robot could navigate, detect and extinguish fire autonomously. Arduino Uno was used as the microcontroller to control the flame sensors' input and output of the flame extinguisher. Apart from his professional life, Owais is an avid book reader and a huge computer technology enthusiast and likes to keep himself updated regarding developments in the computer industry.

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