A new bricklaying robot–designed to build an entire house in two days–was originally created to help meet labor shortages. But the robot can also cut construction waste and save so much money that it could be a viable way to build low-cost housing even in the poorest communities in the world.
“The global appetite for automation is very high,” says Mike Pivac, CEO of Fastbrick Robotics, the Australia-based company that spent 10 years developing the robot, called the Hadrian X. “But it’s a need now, not a want. We have to do this. If we’re going to satisfy the global need for low-cost housing over the next 30 years, as we add another 3 billion people to the planet, we see solutions like this as being very, very important. And we want to do that in as environmentally sustainable a way as possible.”
The truck-mounted robot uses a patented system to keep its 92-foot long arm stable as it works outside, even in windy weather, and handles heavy blocks. Builders upload a computer file of the design, and the system handles everything else. The robot cuts each brick as needed, and the system feeds them up a conveyor belt, where they’re coated with adhesive and precisely placed in the house (without the need for water or mortar).
The company considers it a 3-D printer, even though it doesn’t work like most. “Instead of loading the printer with a coil of plastic or a coil of wire, we’re loading the 3-D printer with blocks,” says Pivac. “We print a structure, but we’re using a very cheap, very readily available product. It’s still the cheapest building product that you can produce in the world.”
Normally, because human bricklaying is an imperfect process, builders have to wait until bricks are laid–and take measurements–before they can start building other components of a house. The robot works so precisely that other pieces can be built in parallel, saving time. It’s also 20 to 30 times faster than a human, and can lay up to 1,000 bricks an hour (an earlier version of the robot, called the Hadrian 105, can lay 225 bricks an hour).
The system can save waste by giving feedback to architects or homeowners as a house is designed in custom software and helping them make choices that save material. “We call it a guilt-o-meter,” he says. “It actually makes them understand the amount of landfill and cost for waste as they make their decisions on designing a home.”
Without humans on site with power tools, it’s also safer. All of this makes the system attractive for builders–particularly in places such as Australia where fewer young people want to become masons, and labor shortages are common. But the company has also realized that it could help provide affordable housing even in places where labor is currently cheap.
“A company in South Africa who’s undertaking the building of 150,000 low-cost homes there believes that our machine is ideal for them,” says Pivac. Companies from Brazil and elsewhere, planning to build hundreds of thousands of low-cost homes, have also reached out.
The design can work with any kind of brick, so it can move seamlessly from Argentina to Tanzania to the UK. The company also believes the robot could build humanitarian shelters. “The UN should be buying 100 of these machines now, and have them working in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan,” he says. “They should be building homes as cheaply and fast as they can.”
Fastbrick Robotics plans to begin building its first homes in Australia in the third quarter of 2017, and plans to manufacture about 8,000 of the robots over the next decade.
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