Can a robot do your job?

In the last 50 years, industrial robotics have come to play a crucial role in industrial fields, replacing dangerous or tedious human tasks. While the construction industry has remained largely untouched by the robotics revolution, a company in New York has developed a robot to increase the productivity of one of the oldest trades in the world, brick laying.

TRANSCRIPT

INDUSTRIAL ROBOTICS HAVE COME TO PLAY A CRUCIAL ROLE IN MANY INDUSTRIAL FIELDS, REPLACING DANGEROUS OR TEDIOUS HUMAN TASKS.

WHILE THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY HAS REMAINED LARGELY UNTOUCHED BY THE ROBOTICS REVOLUTION, A COMPANY IN NEW YORK HAS DEVELOPED A ROBOT TO INCREASE THE PRODUCTIVITY OF ONE OF THE OLDEST TRADES IN THE WORLD -- BRICKLAYING.

TAKE A LOOK.

IT WAS BACK IN ABOUT 2007.

NATE AND I WERE TALKING ABOUT OUR VARIOUS CAREERS.

NATE HAS SPENT MANY, MANY YEARS IN THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY WITH A GENERAL-CONTRACTING COMPANY, AND MY BACKGROUND IS ENGINEERING -- MANUFACTURING ENGINEERING.

AND NATE REALLY EXPRESSED THE FRUSTRATION AND WHAT HE SAW AS THE INEFFICIENCIES ON THE JOBSITE, ON THE CONSTRUCTION SITE.

THERE'S SO MUCH MANUAL LABOR INVOLVED.

EVERYTHING IS A VERY MANUAL PROCESS, VERY SLOW PROCESS.

WHEN YOU LOOK AT AUTOMATION AND YOU LOOK AT FACTORIES AND HOW THEY LEVERAGE AUTOMATION IN ROBOTICS, THEY'RE ABLE TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE BENEFITS THAT ROBOTICS AND THESE AUTOMATION SYSTEMS CAN BRING TO THE TABLE, AND ONE OF THE FIRST APPLICATIONS THAT WE FELT WAS A GREAT FIT WAS MASONRY.

IT'S A VERY REPETITIVE PROCESS, VERY MANUAL PROCESS, VERY PREDICTABLE PROCESS WHICH IS PERFECT FOR AUTOMATION AND ROBOTICS.

SAM IS SHORT FOR 'SEMI-AUTOMATED MASON,' AND WHAT SAM DOES -- IT WORKS ALONGSIDE THE WORKER.

IT'S NOT A FULLY AUTONOMOUS ROBOTIC SYSTEM.

YOU CAN'T SET IT UP AND THEN COME BACK A DAY LATER AND THE WALL'S BUILT.

IT'S VERY INTERACTIVE WITH THE WORKERS.

IT'S A LITTLE BIT INTERESTING SPACE THAT WE'RE IN, BECAUSE WE'RE NOT BUILDING EQUIPMENT THAT'S, LIKE, REMOTE-CONTROLLED.

YOU KNOW, YOU'RE NOT SITTING AT CONTROLS, DRIVING, LIKE, A BACKHOE AROUND, AND YOU'RE NOT ALSO SETTING UP, AGAIN, A LIGHTS-OUT FACTORY WHERE YOU JUST SET THIS THING AND COME BACK A DAY LATER.

IT'S REALLY THIS IN-BETWEEN SPACE.

IT'S THIS IN-BETWEEN SPACE OF YOU SET UP A CERTAIN WORKSPACE FOR THIS ROBOT TO WORK WITHIN, AND THEN ONCE IT'S SET UP, ONCE YOU'VE DEFINED THE WORKSPACE FOR THIS ROBOT TO BUILD THE BRICK WALL, THEN IT CAN RUN FAIRLY AUTONOMOUSLY WITHIN THAT SPACE.

YOU NEED TO FEED IT BRICKS, YOU NEED TO FEED IT MORTAR, AND YOU NEED TO INTERACT WITH IT WHENEVER IT HAS AN ISSUE.

IT'LL TELL YOU.

IT SAYS, 'HEY, COME PAY ATTENTION TO ME.

FIX THIS PROBLEM THAT I SEE.'

[ MACHINE CHIRPING ] AND SO IT ALLOWS THE WORKER TO LEVERAGE SOME OF THEIR TIME AND EFFORT.

THEY CAN SET IT UP, THEY CAN GET IT RUNNING, THEY NEED TO KEEP IT FED WITH BRICKS AND MORTAR, BUT THEN, FOR THE MOST PART, THE MASON WILL FOLLOW BEHIND THE SYSTEM.

A LOT EASIER ON YOUR BODY, FIRST OFF, 'CAUSE YOU'RE NOT DOING ALL THE WORK YOURSELF.

IT'S JUST HARD ON YOUR BODY, REALLY -- HARD ON YOUR ELBOWS, YOUR JOINTS.

RIGHT NOW I HAVE TENNIS ELBOW FROM HANDLING A TROWEL, SO IT REALLY JUST TAKES A LOT OF THAT, AND NOW MY JOB MOSTLY CONSISTS OF TOOLING, MAKING SURE THE BRICK ARE IN THE RIGHT ALIGNMENT.

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, I'LL RUN UP THERE AND STOCK IT.

YOU HAVE TWO GUYS RUNNING THE SYSTEM -- THE GUY ON THE WALL AND THE GUY UP THERE RUNNING THE PAD AND STOCKING, USUALLY, AND KEEPING ORDER.

TWO OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES THAT WE DISCOVERED EARLY ON WAS HOW DO YOU CORRECT FOR THE MOVEMENT?

WHEN YOU TAKE A ROBOT -- AGAIN, WHEN A ROBOT IS TYPICALLY USED IN A MANUFACTURING ENVIRONMENT, IT'S A VERY PREDICTABLE SETTING AROUND IT.

SO, IT'S BOLTED TO THE FLOOR.

IT'S ON A CONCRETE PAD.

IT CAN DRIVE AROUND VERY EASILY.

IT CAN MOVE AROUND.

WHEN WE TAKE A ROBOT ONTO A JOBSITE FOR MASONRY APPLICATIONS, YOU'RE TYPICALLY BUILDING VERTICAL WALLS, SO YOU'RE GOING UP STORY AFTER STORY.

AND WHEN YOU GET UP IN THE AIR, YOU NEED A WAY TO GET UP THERE, AND WHAT IS USED ON CONSTRUCTION SITES TODAY IS A MAST CLIMBING WORK PLATFORM.

WHEN YOU MOUNT OUR SYSTEM TO THAT PLATFORM, IT'S MOVING AROUND, SO IT'S LIKE BEING ON A BOAT.

YOU'RE UP IN SPACE, AND AS STABLE AS THIS PLATFORM IS, IT'S STILL SWAYING WITH THE WIND.

IT'S STILL MOVING AS PEOPLE JUMP UP AND DOWN.

SO, I MEAN, WHEN YOU'RE UP THERE FIVE, SIX STORIES, YOU LITERALLY FEEL LIKE YOU'RE ON A BOAT.

SO, YOU'RE TAKING THIS ROBOT AND PICKING UP A BRICK, IN THIS CASE, GOING TO THE FIXED STRUCTURE WHILE SITTING ON THIS BOAT, SO TO SPEAK, AND TRYING TO FIND THE EXACT SPOT WHERE IT'S SUPPOSED TO PUT IT, CORRECT FOR THAT MOVEMENT, AND THEN PLACE IT THERE.

THE OTHER MAJOR PROBLEM WAS HOW DO WE DEAL WITH THE MORTAR?

[ WHIRRING ]

WELL, WHEN IT FIRST STARTED, MOST OF THE FOCUS WAS TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE PROPERTIES OF THE MORTAR, SO WE WERE LOOKING AT MORTAR RHEOLOGY.

WE WERE LOOKING AT WHAT WE HAD TO DO WITH MOISTURE CONTENT -- ANYTHING THAT WE CAN DO WITH MORTAR TO HAVE IT WORK IN OUR SYSTEM -- AND THE FOCUS RIGHT FROM THE BEGINNING WAS TO TRY TO WORK WITH MORTAR THAT THE MASONS ARE USING.

SO, WE DIDN'T TARGET TRYING TO CREATE ANYTHING NEW.

WE WANTED TO UNDERSTAND WHAT WE CAN DO WITH THE EXISTING MORTAR THAT THEY'RE USING AND UNDERSTAND THE PRODUCT OR UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENT PHYSICAL PROPERTIES AND CONTROL THEM AND DESIGN THEM TO WORK IN OUR PROCESS.

WE'RE KIND OF DOING THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT MASONS DO.

TYPICALLY, MASONS WILL PUT MORTAR ON THE BRICK OR ON THE BLOCK AND THEN LAY ANOTHER BLOCK ON TOP OF IT.

WE'RE APPLYING IT, AND WE HAVE TO INVERT IT AND HAVE THE MORTAR STICK IN A SUSPENDED FORM.

SO, FROM THAT POINT, WE WENT ON TO LOOKING AT THE PROCESS AND TRYING TO APPLY THE MORTAR AND SEE WHAT WE CAN DO TO MAKE IT ROBUST ENOUGH TO HAVE EXISTING MORTAR STICK.

SO, IT'S KIND OF A BALANCING ACT.

WE CAN MODIFY THE MORTAR TO SOME DEGREE WITH MOISTURE CONTENT.

AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, WE WANT TO MAKE A ROBUST PROCESS THAT WORKS WITH THE MORTAR THAT THEY'RE USING IN THE FIELD.

IN MY OPINION, IT'S PRETTY REVOLUTIONARY.

WHAT WE'VE DONE FOR, REALLY, ONE OF THE FIRST TIMES ON A CONSTRUCTION SITE, IS WE'VE TAKEN A TRADE, A VALUE-ADDED PROCESS, AND WE'VE HELPED INCREASE THE PRODUCTIVITY OF THAT BY ACTUALLY HELPING TO PERFORM THAT TRADE, TAKING SOME OF THE MANUAL, PHYSICAL ASPECTS OUT OF THAT.

I THINK THAT THE TRANSITION THAT WE'LL SEE OVER THE COMING YEAR IS, AS TECHNOLOGY EVOLVES, AS IT ADVANCES, YOU WILL SEE A LITTLE BIT LESS INTERACTION WITH THE SYSTEM.

THE SYSTEM WILL GET SMARTER.

THE SYSTEM WILL HAVE -- IT'LL BUILD ITS OWN INTELLIGENCE.

THERE'LL BE OTHER ROBOTS AND OTHER PROCESSES THAT HELP FEED THE SYSTEM EASIER AND FASTER SO THAT YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE PLACING EVERY BRICK ON THE SYSTEM.

SAME THING WITH THE MORTAR.

BUT -- BUT I THINK THAT THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SOMEONE THERE TO HELP SET THINGS UP, TO HELP MONITOR, SO, EVENTUALLY, THERE MAY BE A DAY WHEN, AS THIS TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES OR OTHER TECHNOLOGIES ADVANCE, THERE MAY BE ONE TECHNICAL CONSTRUCTION PERSON THAT CAN RUN THREE OR FOUR SYSTEMS.

BUT I THINK THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A WORKER THERE.