Photo cCourtesy of Zachary Podkaminer
SAM the Semi-Automated Masonry machine uses a map of the wall it's building along with a laser to build alongside workers.

A robot that lays bricks is now out of beta testing and at work alongside masons and laborers at a school-building jobsite in Ft. Collins, Colo. The Semi-Autonomous Mason, more commonly known as SAM, is already booked for two additional jobs. Masons working with SAM say the robot may help alleviate workforce shortages foreseen in future generations in masonry trades.

"He does a pretty good job, is pretty efficient, and I don't mind working with him," says John Munt, a mason employed by Ft. Collins-based Soderberg Masonry. "He's putting [bricks] in the wall for us and we get them jointed right behind." Munt lives in Arizona but was called out to Colorado where there is a shortage of masons. Other team members came from California.

SAM finished its first wall and is moving onto the second now, says Zachary Podkaminer, operations manager for Construction Robots, Victor, N,Y. "We put 900 bricks in the wall yesterday, with one mason and one tender," he says.

SAM is mounted on a tracked Hydro Mobile mast-climbing platform that extends the deck by 18 in. Workers move the platform where SAM needs to work. The robot is powered by propane and works off a 3D map file that tells it where to stop and start and enables it to avoid window sections.

"You need to set up two story poles, [to the] left and right of where Sam will build," says Podkaminer. "The right story pole has a laser that guides SAM so it can correct for any movement of the Hydro Mobile platform and keep laying flush bricks. Unlike a masonry worker, who applies mortar to the wall before laying a brick, SAM applies mortar to a brick before laying it."

But cautions Podkaminer, "To minimize downtime you've got to think ahead when using this. Once workers get in the groove and walk through a few courses beside SAM, they understand the process. Knowing how the robot works helps smooth the work process. "Make sure when the wall tie is ready to go, you put it in immediately so SAM can continue working."

The manager adds that SAM has become a jobsite attraction. "Every day you see construction workers or people outside the site taking out their iPhones to take photos," says Podkaminer. "They're all just amazed."

In addition, SAM's coworkers credit their robotic colleague with lightening their workload. "A lot of the younger guys aren't coming into the trades anymore, so the robot can take the place of some of those guys," says Munt.