Robot Brickmasons and a Robotic Bricklaying Stock
An article by Bloomberg a few days ago titled Want to Stay Safe While Traveling? Wear a Rolex was probably the worst piece of travel advice we’ve ever seen. Among all the vices that our closely knit team of writers, researchers, and MBAs like to dabble in, the one that we find the most rewarding is travelling the world to have adventures while trying not to get killed or thrown in jail for longer than 24 hours. In a fair number of places we’ve been, wearing a Rolex is a sure way to get shanked. One country that might fall into the category of “don’t wear a Rolex while traveling to” is Bangladesh. When traveling there, you will encounter the friendliest people on the entire planet and structures like these sprinkled all over the country:
Those smoke stacks are brick kilns, and 8,000 of them across Bangladesh are responsible for a great deal of pollution, but also serve an important purpose. They provide the building blocks needed to assemble sweat factories for first world countries. As it turns out, bricks are big business everywhere.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there are 64,370 brickmasons and blockmasons working in the U.S. that are paid an average salary of $53,440. Back of the napkin math puts the total spend on bricklaying in the United States at around $3.4 billion. Given all the focus we’ve seen lately on the digitization of the construction industry, it’s not a surprise to see some companies looking at creating robotic bricklayers. The first company we’re going to look at is a private company called Construction Robotics.
Founded in 2008, New York startup Construction Robotics has taken in just $75,000 in funding to develop the “first commercially available bricklaying robot for onsite masonry construction”. The robot’s name is SAM100, SAM being short for Semi-Automated Mason, and with an expected labor savings of around 50%, it’s no surprise to see that SAM100 is already hard at work. SAM100 is a collaborative robot (also called COBOT) which increases your bricklayers productivity by 3-5X while reducing lifting by 80%. According to a customer testimonial, “SAM can lay over 2,000 bricks a day in comparison to the average 400 laid per mason“. While that may be the case, it’s also important to mention that SAM can only operate in a straight line. Consequently, it is most useful for long walls.
The idea of a robot laying bricks is easy to conceptualize, until you bring mortar into the picture. In the case of SAM100, it coats the brick with mortar first, then places it. Here’s a good video showing how this propane-powered bricklaying robot works.
While SAM100 sounds promising, our next company is more interesting to investors for several reasons. Firstly, it’s publicly traded so you can get a piece of this robotic bricklaying action. Secondly, it’s backed by a giant construction equipment company you may have heard of called Caterpillar. Since it’s an Australian company, and half of our readers hail from ‘Murica, we’ve converted everything to USD for you.
Founded in 2015, Australian company Fastbrick Robotics (ASX:FBR) took in $10 million in funding before a November 2015 IPO that took place through a “reverse takeover” of an existing company shell that was already being traded on the Australian Exchange. The offering was oversubscribed and raised $4.41 million at 1.53 cents a share. Fast forward to today and we see those shares are now worth 15.7 cents giving investors a return of about +926% in just two years. The question is, just what happened in the past several years that merited such an astronomical increase?
We’ve seen far too many small companies with no revenues fizzle out over time because they couldn’t get any traction. When we talk about traction, we’re referring to any sort of validation that the product might be economically viable. A vote of confidence from a large publicly traded company is a good sign of traction, and that’s what Fastbrick managed to secure in July of this year from an $81 billion construction equipment company called Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT). The announcement was a “memorandum of understanding” (or MOU) which as we’ve talked about before typically means eff all. However in this case, what really showed some promise was a corresponding investment by Caterpillar in Fastbrick to the tune of $1.53 million along with an option to invest an additional $6.13 million pending shareholder approval.
As you would expect, that news has helped propel shares of Fastbrick upwards giving the small company a present day market cap of $105 million. So what exactly is under the hood that attracted the likes of Caterpillar? Well, as you would expect it’s a bricklaying robot called Hadrian X that looks like this:
In case you’re wondering, a human bricklayer can only place about 300 to 500 bricks per day. That robot you see above can operate 24 hours a day without needing to take any smoke breaks. One of the reasons why it can achieve such great speeds is that the bricks being used are different from the sorts of bricks you might be familiar, the types that come out of those kilns in Bangladesh.
Hadrian X uses bricks that are 15 times the size of normal bricks and are secured in place using adhesive as opposed to traditional mortar. The advantages of using this new type of brick and adhesive are strength, increased precision, and improved thermal properties. Of course one would expect that the cost of these bricks would be roughly in line with standard bricks otherwise all those labor savings would be eroded. Here’s a look at the father and son team behind the operation along with one of these giant bricks:
Apparently, all you need to do is just load crates of those bricks into the back of the truck and the robot will take it from there. It can automatically trim the bricks as needed, and knows what needs to be built based on software that you use which is just like a CAD program:
You can design your house using the software, then drive the robot up to the site where you’d like to build. Once loaded up with bricks, the robot then goes about building the entire structure in an incredibly efficient manner. Here’s a short video showing how the process works:
In August of this year, Fastbrick signed another MOU with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to build 50,000 new home units by 2022. As news of this robot spreads, Fastbrick continues to receive daily inquiries from other interested parties which shows that the demand is there. Now they just need to start mass producing these things. According to their last financial filing, they’re well funded through 2018 so shareholders shouldn’t have to worry about dilution. This brings us to one last company we’d like to mention.
While researching the topic of bricklaying robots, we also came across a company that does tile laying for large floors. While tiles aren’t exactly bricks, the process is similar in that pieces of material need to be placed with a high degree of precision and secured with mortar. Founded in 2013, Swedish startup CBOT has taken in $693,000 to develop their first robot for Terrazzo tiling on thick-mortars beds. The robot is designed to “fit right into your current process with minimal changes to the current work flow”. It uses machine vision for placement and you can see a video of it in action on the company’s homepage.
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