A Team of Engineers Invented a Brick-Laying Robot. This Is Their Story.

One Robot, a Dozen Engineers and the Race to Revolutionize the Way We Build
By Jonathan Waldman

We’re told that Scott Peters has all the iconic Start-Up Guy traits. He’s as obsessive an engineer as Elon Musk, as aggressive a salesman as Travis Kalanick and as exacting a visionary as — cue beam of golden light — Steve Jobs. What sets Peters apart is that you’ve never heard of him, perhaps because of the size of his dream. It’s approximately 8 inches by 3.5 inches by 2.3 inches. Peters, you see, wants to disrupt bricks.

More precisely, he’d like to perfect and sell an automated bricklaying robot, but even this is misleadingly grand. His creation, SAM, for “semi-automated mason,” requires several human masons to feed it bricks at one end and clean its large diaper pail of mortar excretions at the other. The original idea for SAM belongs to Peters’s architect father-in-law, and so does the majority stake in their upstate New York company, Construction Robotics. What Peters owns are the nightmares from a decade invested in a machine that has no clear market and looks less like the future than a souped-up hot dog cart. “Forget about it,” a construction veteran says after watching SAM belch, squeak and stall under pressure. “It’s not going to work.”

When grand vision meets repeated humiliation we usually get tragedy or comedy. But “SAM” is not sad, or funny ha-ha. It is peculiar, though. In a prologue, Jonathan Waldman reveals that his father wrote a dictionary of robotics and that he had a youthful passion for the subject. With cinematic hauteur, Waldman then pans “400 miles north,” to a boy growing up at roughly the same time who was also fascinated by robots. “This boy, though, was the descendant of some very inventive and courageous and stubborn men, and he had bricks in his blood.” The shared passion, the heroic ancestry, a portentously unnamed boy, and that killer cliché to the skull, are not just misplaced flourishes. They’re the beginning of some major tonal weirdness. Waldman seems determined to write an epic entrepreneurship tale — and it blinds him to the reality of poor SAM, while rendering Scott Peters nearly mute.

“SAM” covers 10 years in two parts. The first is largely set in a rundown facility just south of Rochester, N.Y., where a handful of ex-G.M. and Kodak engineers make halting progress on a prototype. The key metric is bricks per day, and initially the Construction Robotics team struggles to coax SAM to lay 108. Even the laziest human mason can do six times that. SAM’s robot arm is a diva, but mortar is the bigger concern. The viscosity of “mud,” as the trade calls it, changes all the time, and masons must rely on their instinct and experience to sling it effectively. SAM has neither. Infusing a robot with nuance is a challenge worthy of the engineers’ skills, but Waldman can’t resist invoking higher stakes. “A lot hung in the balance — not just for Scott but for America. Brickworks, having endured decades of decline, was disappearing. Who cared about bricks? Nobody. And everybody.”

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes


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