The news these days has repeatedly reported that the United States is at or near full-employment. This situation has left some industries experiencing a shortage of labor. Construction is one such industry feeling the pinch of a worker shortage. Brayman Construction and Advanced Construction Robotics (ACR) have found an innovative way to deal with the worker shortage enabling them to be a finalist for the AGC Innovation Award.
When founded in 1947, Brayman Construction focused on small bridges. Stephen Muck, who currently serves as the CEO and Owner, bought the firm in 1992 and diversified the company. Muck describes himself as an “MBA type and not a civil engineer”. Today, Brayman includes a heavy civil group and a foundation group, with a focus on bridges, dams, highways, and power generation. The majority of their work takes place in the Eastern United States.
Under Muck’s leadership, Brayman has always been an early adopter of new technology and on the lookout for technology advancements. Being in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, offers a competitive advantage as it’s a worldwide hub for artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. This background and philosophy inspired Muck to “build our own team to focus on robotics.”
Two and a half years ago Muck and Jeremy Searock cofounded ACR. The company’s goal is to utilize robotics and AI to innovate and commercialize a wide range of autonomous products and lead the long-term transformation of the construction industry towards enhanced productivity, improved safety, increased profits, and reduced schedule risk. Searock leads a nine-person team of hardware, software, and AI professionals. Most of the team came as a unit and previously worked together at Carnegie Mellon University. “We were looking for opportunities where we could make a near-term commercial impact. We wanted to see our robots competently working every day providing value to the industry,” says Searock.
With the decline in availability and productivity of the labor force, ACR set about finding ways to utilize robotics in the construction field. Muck describes the relationship, “Brayman functions as an integration partner and works hand in glove with ACR as we understand construction challenges and are able to incorporate experience into the process.” The focus is on eliminating the need for human labor for types of tasks that are labor intense, cause injuries, and in which people are uninterested. This led to the creation of TyBot, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of ACR.
In bridge construction, tying deck rebar is a repetitive, physically demanding, and time consuming job. Hence, TyBot, an autonomous rebar-tying robot. The prototype was first utilized in October 2017 on the bottom mat of a 5,000-square-foot surface area of bridge deck.
“We used TyBot on this project to see if we had a commercially viable product. It completed the work in one shift, and the construction crew wanted to know when it was coming back to do the top mat,” says Muck.
On this small, test project, Muck estimates TyBot saved 30 percent in construction costs. With the application of new technology, there are always challenges to overcome and room for improvements. Fast forward to today, TyBot recently completed a job in New Hampshire for R.S. Audley and it’s Vice President Scott Stevens said, “It did exactly what they said it would; it showed up on time and got the job done.”
Since that initial test, TyBot has been used on two other projects and three more are scheduled for this fall. TyBot has been well-received by the industry. Muck notes that he has fielded calls from around the U.S. and internationally from companies interested in utilizing TyBot. This is no surprise since TyBot enhances productivity, improves safety, increases profit, and reduces schedule risk. As of now, there are four TyBots (they are aiming to have 10 built by the end of 2018) and they are available for lease. “We want as much market exposure as possible, so people can become more aware of the benefits TyBot offers.”
To get TyBot to a job is a relatively simple process as the robot travels easily on a 40-foot trailer. Once TyBot is at a site, it can be assembled in half a day. A Quality Control Technician (QCT) comes with TyBot to support the robot. The QCT can also take care of any missed ties that the robot can not articulate around.
Whenever there is something new, there are usually some people who are concerned or doubtful about the impact. In the initial tryouts, construction workers are pleased to have TyBot handle the monotonous physically demanding chore of tying rebar. According to Muck, TyBot raised $4 million to commercialize TyBot and a labor union was one of the investors. “The labors union in Western Pennsylvania was excited when they saw the robot. They recognized that they don’t have the labor during certain times of the year – when demand is peaking.”
Another reason TyBot is palatable to unions is because it’s not taking labor out of the equation. They suggest using TyBot in addition to existing labor in order to get the biggest benefits.
Searock says of TyBot, “From tech perspective, TyBot is not so complicated as it sees rebar intersections and ties them. The challenge is convincing industry that this is real and not science fiction and there are real benefits.”
Brayman has been a member of the AGC since Muck purcahsed the company. Muck, who served as President of the local AGC chapter, is happy to see the organization focused on innovation. He’s excited about being a finalist for the award, “We are demonstrating that creative companies can develop viable technology to stay ahead of the curve.” Searock views making the final round as validation. “This is them saying we are up to something big.”
Images courtesy of TyBot, LLC and 603 Drones, LLC
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