Artwork by Eddy Rojas
President Rodriguez stood at her podium in the East Room of the White House. To her left, my friend and mentor, Julian Lewis, stood awaiting his reception of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His seventy-year-old face showed the creases of countless days and nights of hard work and dedication, and his composure revealed his equanimity even in the face of such an honor.
“When Julian Lewis introduced Semi-Autonomous Manufacturing Robots to electrical construction 40 years ago,” said President Rodriguez, her resonant voice filling the room, “he transformed the construction site forever. SAMBots have since saved countless lives that would otherwise have been lost due to jobsites electrocutions. These SAMBots have also significantly increased labor productivity at the jobsite while simultaneously reducing project durations. As an engineer myself,” Rodriguez continued, “I truly appreciated the revolution that this disruptive technology brought to the construction industry, and I feel honored to present Mr. Lewis with this distinguished Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Julian’s eyes shown with emotion—gratefulness, disbelief, pride, humility—as President Rodriguez placed the Medal around his neck. Having known him for so long, I could tell that above all he was thinking of his late wife, Suzanne. Julian’s eyes revealed how much he wished she could have been there to share the medal with him. After all, she was as much a part of this endeavor as he was.
Watching my friend shake hands with arguably the most powerful person in the world, I thought back to his past. In the early days, when he was a project manager for an electrical contractor, Julian and his best friend, Michael, worked for the same company. They had gone through college together and felt fortunate to work alongside one another on the construction site. But then, during a foggy and cold spring morning, an arc flash killed Michael right in front of Julian.
The psychological scar of that experience soon became apparent to me when I met Julian a few years later. In those days Julian was supervising the installation of electrical systems at modern manufacturing facilities where fully automated robots were the norm. One morning he confided in me, his intern, about his frustrations regarding the lack of automation at construction sites.
“John,” he said, his brow furrowed as he looked over one of our construction projects. “If we were to resurrect a superintendent who passed away 50 years ago, she would likely be able to take over this site without any trouble. So little has changed since those days.” He became more introspective, his youthful face taking on the image of a man looking out over a grand view. After a few moments, he turned and looked me in the eyes. “If we had robots performing electrical work, we would not lose lives. Michael would still be here!”
Julian had gone on to talk about the seeming impossibility of automating construction like a factory: robots in a factory are stationary with their products moving. In construction, the product remained stationary while the installers must move.
“I have been doing some research into robotics,” Julian added. “You know, after hours. I can tell you that designing a stationary robot is a thousand times easier than creating one that must move around and adapt to a constantly evolving environment. But there must be a way to do it!”
Over months and years, I watched as Julian’s hobby became his passion. He spent most nights and weekends dreaming about better ways to bring robotics into the field. He befriended robotics researchers, even meeting his wife, Suzanne, a cybernetics engineer. The two of them turned the puzzle into a shared project, spending their evenings drafting solutions.
One day, Julian came to the office as excited as I had ever seen him.
Our colleague Mary brought my attention to it first. She pulled me aside with a soft‐spoken voice. “What is going on with Julian? It looks like he won the lotto.”
I looked across the room and understood what she meant–he beamed and bounced around the room. “He got it,” I exhaled, more to myself than Mary. “He found the solution.”
Julian soon called a meeting to explain his epiphany. “All of these years I have been thinking about how to fully automate electrical construction with the use of robots while eliminating humans from the equation. I should have been thinking about how to augment human capacity.” He looked around the room to see the revelation break upon us. “It is not about having either robots or humans, but about synthesizing the best each has to offer by working together. We do not need fully autonomous robots in the field, but semi autonomous ones directed by humans.”
As time went by, Julian and Suzanne introduced a selected group of colleagues and friends to 3D robotic schematics, infecting us with excitement. We joined their efforts almost immediately. There were all‐nighters, conference tables covered with Chinese take‐out boxes. There were weekend meetings around Julian’s BBQ, late‐night calls about new approaches. And it all culminated with SAMBot–o0ur prized “Sammy.” When our angel investors saw our rudimentary prototype, they gave us the funds necessary to establish Lewis Robotics Incorporated. We were on our way.
Sammy was unique in the sense that it required the coupling of human intelligence with mechanical dexterity and speed. Rather than obeying a predetermined algorithm like other manufacturing robots, Sammy required human guidance to identify the task at hand and practice the movements necessary to accomplish the project. Remotely controlled by an electrician using augmented reality to combine engineering specifications and assembly instructions with jobsite conditions, Sammy’s actions were initially guided. But quickly Sammy would pick up the electrician’s approach, moving from the dependent learning phase to a rapid independent production phase. Our Sammy could be placed in any construction site, learn the movements necessary for an installation, and after a few practice passes guided by the electrician, breeze through the remaining processes with all of the speed of a manufacturing floor. Sammy could then protect electricians from danger while allowing them to control an entire crew carrying out complex installations. Suddenly electricians were safer and five-times more productive.
What we hadn’t initially foreseen was the full potential of the remote operation. Since Sammy could be controlled from a distance, it was possible to have 24-hour operations by establishing three daily shifts using electricians from around the world, each working at their normal day schedules. Suddenly, there was no need for additional compensation for night shifts. Advanced actuators, elastic nanotubes, highly sensitive haptics, accurate sensors, long-lasting power sources, advanced artificial intelligence, visual analytics, and remote operation synthesized in a single robot to increase labor productivity fivefold and decrease activity duration to one‐ third. We marveled at the results. The era of Sammy had arrived!
As I sat in the White House, my mind moved through the decades of improvements we made to our SAMBots. Sammy’s first generation focused on replication, seeking to duplicate human capacity and develop attachments that could perform the same kind of installations that humans were doing at the time. Then came the emphasis on taking advantage of the divergence between robots’ and humans’ kinetics characteristics: we introduced movements and actions that humans could not perform without suffering sever fatigue or injury. Finally, our newest phase emerged as designers began creating electrical systems that could be assembled exclusively by Sammy–removing the access and buffer restrictions human bodies once necessitated. This phase also came with a new development as owners began to stock Sammys at their facilities to support daily operations, expediting their maintenance and repairs. A whole new market segment had opened up for us.
As applause filled the East Room of the White House, my mind landed upon Julian’s greatest genius: he recognized that while developing an autonomous robot for the construction site was not viable, a semiautonomous solution was in our reach. And by inspiring the rest of us to help build such a solution, we had transformed the construction site–and the world.
When Julian and I walked away from the White House alongside a few of our closest friends, I asked him point-blank, “Julian, what’s next?”
He looked at me with a big smile and a deep sense of satisfaction. “John,” he said, “the next step is to be determined by engineers in their early twenties and thirties. Our duty is to make sure that they have the opportunities to dream, to explore, to try new approaches, to learn from failure, and to never, never give up. We are still far, far away from a perfect construction site, but only a step away from a better one.”
Julian stepped off the curb onto the street, his Medal of Freedom glistening in the sun.
Eddy Rojas is Director of the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he oversees academic programs in architectural engineering, construction engineering and construction management. Dr. Rojas holds advanced degrees in civil engineering and economics and is a registered Professional Engineer in Michigan. Throughout his academic career, he has led numerous research studies in modeling, simulation and visualization of construction engineering and management processes, construction economics and engineering education. Results of his research have been documented and disseminated in more than 85 publications.
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