BY DEBRA WOOD
For the first time in the United States, contactors have deployed two semi-robotic construction devices — Material Unit Lift Enhancers (MULE) and a Semiautomated Mason (SAM) — to ensure success at a $62 million project at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois.
“At Clark, we are always looking for ways to improve quality, productivity and safety and add value,” says Tyler Shawcross, senior project manager at Clark Construction Group in Bethesda, Maryland, a member of multiple AGC chapters and joint venture partner with Blinderman Construction Co. of Chicago, a member of Chicagoland AGC, on the Naval Station Great Lakes project.
The job’s masonry subcontractor, Jimmy’Z Masonry Corp. of Crystal Lake, Illinois, suggested using the robotic assist devices developed by Construction Robotics of Victor, New York, and now has more than 100 MULEs and 11 SAMs in the field.
“[Jimmy’Z] wanted to incorporate innovation in the way they do work, and we want to support those efforts,” Shawcross says. “What it does for us is drive certainty on schedule and cost. They are reliable machines and can work a number of highly productive hours per day.”
The Naval Facilities Engineering Command is managing construction of the 166,000-square-foot barracks, which will be able to house 616 enlisted military personnel in 308 bunk rooms. The naval station is used for training. According to Clark representatives, the owner has been supportive of using the new technologies on the project. The barracks’ structure consists of reinforced concrete on a shallow foundation with a brick exterior.
Clark and Blinderman began construction on the project in March 2019, with completion scheduled for October 2020. This project is Clark’s sixth job at the naval base.
The MULE is a smart-lift assist device, which can be used in masonry work, as is happening at the Naval Station Great Lakes project, and for other heavy lifting at a construction site. It can pick up items weighing up to 135 pounds.
“It allows the craftsperson to pick the material to install and make that material weightless,” says Scott Peters, president, CEO and co-founder of Construction Robotics. “The masons still have their hands on the block, but it is weightless. [The MULE] reduces shoulder injuries, back injuries and allows [the masons] to be more productive because they are less tired throughout the day.”
The MULE grips a block from above, and the mason adds mortar, moves the block into place and releases the MULE’s grip. Typically, one mason works with one MULE.
“The learning curve is minimal,” Peters says. “There are two buttons, one to grab and release the block and one to add weight to it, making it set easily into the mortar.”
On the Naval Station Great Lakes project, a dozen MULEs lifted 74-pound, oversized 32-inch-long concrete masonry units into place. They also will be used to set 16,000 square feet of cast stone, which weigh nearly 80 pounds each. The original plans called for traditionally sized blocks.
The project’s design-build delivery provided Clark with greater opportunities to bring forward innovations during the early stages of the project. When Jimmy’Z presented the idea of using the MULE with larger blocks, which would speed up the job and increase efficiency, Clark and Blinderman talked with the owner and the architect to obtain approval. Aesthetically, it appears the same as a traditional 16-inch block, because of a strike in the center. Use of the oversized blocks would not have been possible without the MULEs.
“One impressive thing about this project is we had 12 MULES, which is the most on any project, and we had SAM out there,” Peters says. “That’s a huge statement for the level of commitment Jimmy’Z and Clark made toward the support of the technology on the jobsite.”
SAM, another robotic device, works with masons to lay bricks. It picks a brick, applies mortar to it and assembles brick or brick veneer structures. The mason, with support provided by Construction Robotics, programs the device using a 3D model of the wall called a wall map. It can lay the brick in complex patterns.
SAM can be used on a jobsite, working on hydraulic mass climbing platforms or in a prefabrication setting. Typically, two masons and a laborer work alongside the machine.
“SAM does the heavy repetitive lifting, and the masons manage quality, do layout and set up the machine,” Peters says. “The masons strike the joints with their tools.”
A mason can typically lay about 500 bricks per day, while SAM can lay between 200 and 400 bricks per hour, depending on the layout. Peters suggested that SAM is best suited for large, commercial projects.
“It allows for parallel processing,” Peters says. “Bricks can be going in the wall installed by SAM, while the masons are installing flashing, wall ties, stone and return bricks. It enables for amplification of the team’s productivity.”
Neither robotic device aims to replace workers; rather they are designed to assist people.
“We need the smarts, experience and skills of the craftsman, but we want to give them tools to reduce injury and strain and increase the overall safety and productivity of the industry,” Peters says.
This was not Clark’s first experience with SAM. On a project in Washington, D.C., SAM provided high-quality brick work, according to Shawcross. Additionally, the masons “loved it, because they felt great at the end of the day. The role of the masons changes with SAM. It’s more quality management and layout. Their job is more dynamic.”
Peters praised the collaboration among the team members on the Naval Station Great Lakes project and their willingness to try new technologies.
“Innovation is coming fast, and it’s great to see partners like Clark, Blinderman and Jimmy’Z understand and recognize the value of technology and take an interest in pushing the technology forward,” Peters says.
The robotic-assist equipment enhances safety, boosts productivity and reduces craftsmen’s fatigue. “We’re extremely excited about technology like this,” Shawcross says. “We see challenges in the industry with labor shortages, an aging workforce and fewer people from younger generations coming into the industry or masonry trade. We see this as a catalyst to change that.”
One of AGC of America’s key focus areas for the foreseeable future is its Future Focus initiative. This initiative is premised on the fact that the commercial construction industry is on the brink of some very profound changes. The point is to track those changes and develop programming and educational materials to help member firms profit from them.
As part of this initiative, the association is sharing information about some of the new technologies and techniques that are transforming the construction industry via articles like this, webinars, in-seat meetings and on-site demonstrations. The association is also exploring how member firms are harnessing these new technologies and these new techniques to their benefit. And the association is also cataloging these transformative technologies and providing information about where firms can learn more about them.
AGC of America is also putting a special focus on the future as it develops new educational programs, schedules presentations at the Annual Convention and other in-person meetings, crafts new online courses and maps out its schedule of webinars. The association is also looking for member firms with experience — both positive and negative — in adopting new technologies and new techniques.
AGC officials say their objective is simple: They don’t want their members to become the construction industry equivalents of taxicabs in an Uber world. The new content, new classes and new connections focusing on how the industry is changing are all designed to help firms not only weather this transition but benefit from it. For the past 100 years, AGC of America has helped member firms cope with change. It is not about to stop now.