Construction Game Changer: Robot Bricklayer

Robot Bricklayer Photo

Construction Game Changer: Robot Bricklayer 

In a small village in Everingham, East Yorkshire, UK, a three-bedroom house has been constructed—for the first time ever—by a robot bricklayer.

Created by Construction Automation, the test house was built in two weeks, compared to the normal four weeks it takes manual workers. Built in September 2020, the Automated Brick Laying Robot (ABLR) is changing the way project managers work on construction sites, helping them bring costs under control and reduce errors.

“Rather than [remaining] in an industry that is built based on firefighting and fixing problems, the ABLR will enable it to be one that is based on numbers, times and schedules,” said David Longbottom, director at Construction Automation.

Operated through a tablet, the ABLR can read architectural plans and build a digital image of a house. A sensor in the device measures each brick to ensure they are the correct size, and a laser tracker lines them up on the wall accurately. One part of the robot spreads the mortar, while another lays out the bricks.

“The robot tells you what is needed on-site each day,” said Longbottom. “The machine knows how many bricks and blocks you should put down per hour, per day. It also knows environmental temperature, wind speed and the weather conditions. 

“Once you've got data, you can then see what's going wrong with it. Let’s say it ran out of bricks because they were not managing it properly; it will send a message to the project manager [that] it is behind. They can then see where they have lost time and can put in an improvement plan.”

Another Brick in the Wall

Since ABLR guarantees the accuracy of bricks going in the correct locations, project managers do not have to make as many adjustments in other areas of the build. For example, manual bricklayers can sometimes be off in their measurements. This might mean a door or window doesn’t get placed in its originally intended spot.

Longbottom sees the data that the robotic bricklayer can produce becoming central to project managers’ material requirements planning (MRP) systems, which are used to estimate quantities of materials needed and scheduling details.

For example, the system can tell the project manager that a plasterboard (drywall) needs to be installed inside the house at a certain time. The precut plasterboard can then arrive on-site, with a QR code telling installers where to put it. The system manages the whole process, helping to eliminate mistakes and on-site wastage.

Attracting Younger Workers to the Industry

Longbottom also hopes the technology will attract younger people to the sector, helping to alleviate the country’s housing shortage by being able to build more quickly. Currently in the UK, there is a worker shortage in the construction field and houses cannot be built fast enough.

“The fact [that] you can build a house with a tablet rather than a trowel will attract younger people into it,” he said. “If we can attract younger people into it, that will include project managers.”

Longbottom does not think the technology will make bricklaying jobs redundant, but rather will drive current workers to reskill. Someone still needs to load the machine with bricks, and install insulation, tie bars (which are used to fix together two opposite external walls) and lintels (beams placed around windows and doors), he said.

He also thinks robots will give certainty to homebuyers that a construction job has been done correctly. The ABLR takes a digital photo at every step, which remains with the house for its standard shelf life of 150 years.

"When you are buying a house, a surveyor comes around, and rather than just taking a look at it, you will have access to the digital photographs,” said Longbottom. “You can see there are four tie bars and it was insulated in that corner.”

If any future work needs to be done on the house, project managers will be able to see the past history of the construction process through the photos.

To further help project managers in their construction jobs, Longbottom is expanding the technology to other areas, such as working on roofs and laying down tiles.

The ABLR is still in its early stages, but the team at Construction Automation is planning on building another house in Yorkshire to further refine the technology in the near future.

Digital Exclusive article developed for Project Management Institute, Inc. by Joanne Frearson. Frearson is a U.K.-based business reporter.

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