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Look at this bricklaying robot from the 1960s

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I’ve written quite a lot about AI and robotics in construction over the last few years. One of the most interesting things I’ve found recently is that the industry was trying to develop bricklaying robots as long ago as the mid-1960s.  I unearthed this fascinating video on YouTube of the Motor Mason, an unsuccessful attempt as it happens, but one that, if you’ll forgive the pun, helped pave the way for today’s robots.

 

Robotics have come a long way since the Motor Mason and it’s clear is that there is no point in being like King Canute and expecting the technological tide to turn before it overwhelms us.  While that day is some way off, one of the things that will determine the speed of change is the cost.  To that end, I have done some, entirely unscientific, research to try to find out roughly how much some of these machines cost…

According the Federation of Master Builders, in 2018 the average brickie’s annual salary in the UK was £42,000, with regional variations across the country.  In contrast, in 2015, a SAM (Semi-Automated Mason), made by New York firm Construction Robotics, was available for $500,000 (£453,500 in today’s prices).  You don’t have to be a genius to work out that you can have about ten brickies for the price of one machine.  However, the machine doesn’t come on its own: it needs at least one human operative, so make that 11 brickies, plus running and other costs.

Construction Robotics also makes a machine called The MULE.  Both this and SAM featured in my previous blog.   The cost of The MULE appears (in 2019) to be $70,000 (£56,225).  That’s not a huge amount compared to a bricklayer (less than the average for one in London for instance). 

Hadrian X, made by Aussie firm Fastbricks Robotics, is a bit more expensive.  I found it for AU$2M (£1.034M).  You might think you would get a lot of bricklayers for that, and you would - about 25. 

What I don’t know, without actually posing as a potential buyer, is what the running costs of these machines are and how many human operatives are required to support them all.  Moreover, it’s clear that while very good, they are not capable of doing everything you need on a site.  I suspect you’ll also need to pay for a team to set them up too.  That said, on the face of it, the costs are not insurmountable.  If a bricklaying robot “only” costs the same as ten or 11 brickies, and the ROI is, as claimed, within months rather than years, why not just go and buy one? Surely, they’ll be available on Amazon soon?

Well, yes and no. Digging a bit deeper, I found that in the USA, by 2018, it was suggested that there are currently 130 MULEs in operation, plus 11 SAMs, albeit with more being built.  The fact is that, especially in its current straitened circumstances, much of the construction industry is simply not going to have even half a million pounds kicking around to spend on a bit of kit, even if it’s promised to realise a swift ROI. We’re going to need brickies for some time to come.
Chris Peace, MD, Peace Recruitment


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