June 24, 2021

Students choreograph co-bots with incredible results

Donor gift makes it possible to build prototypes with robots to change the future of construction
Mark Hagel and previous AMC marketing director, Nicholle Miller at the CBDLab opening, April 2019.
Mark Hagel and previous AMC marketing director Nicholle Miller at the CBDLab opening, April 2019.

Masonry construction stretches back at least 10,000 years, with earliest recorded use in Mesopotamia. Automation is becoming a normal part of our everyday lives, and the brick-laying industry is no exception. However, we’re surrounded in cities by metal and concrete — what has renewed an interest in bricks?

“Steel and concrete have been preferred in construction for the past half century or so, but because of material scarcity, the industry is prompted to take a second look at older technologies,” says Guy Gardner, MArch’13, MEDes’19. “Masonry construction has performance advantages including good acoustic and thermal properties. It is a craft that employs highly skilled local tradespeople, and relies on products that can be manufactured using local materials."

Gardner is a robotics and digital specialist with the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL) at the University of Calgary. He is also an instructor, and teaches the specialized course Integrative Design: Masonry and Robotics studio to Master of Architecture students.

There is an incredible history of brick-making in Alberta, and we wanted to use that history as a frame to explore the idea of automation in design and construction.

In 1912, I-XL Industries established a pressed-brick-making business in Redcliff, Alta. To bridge past and future, and with a deep reverence for craftmanship, Gardner extended an invitation to Malcolm Sissons of I-XL to work with students and participate in the design crits.

Derek Kowalchuk, a local bricklayer, stonemason, and instructor for the bricklayer program at SAIT, was also invited to work with and advise students.

Sissons jokes, “If an architect said: I have this fire-safe material that can’t combust, will last 500 years without breaking down, and holds its colour, everyone would amazed…but actually it’s a 10,000-year-old material.”

Robots and prototypes

After spending two weeks with masonry experts, architecture students designed bricks and stacking patterns that would be suitable for robots. Sissons and Kowalchuk offered students direct learning about traditional methods, fundamental techniques, building science and materials.

Students were able to trial brick designs and work with the experts to optimize ideas. “Students encountered similar problems as in manufacturing,” Sissons observes. “One group experimented with an open U-shape, which was fragile. Through iterations, they were able to increase rigidity. It’s really valuable to be able to learn about how a material feels — and how to balance it Fassemblewith manipulation of the material.”

Influence of Old to New by Jessica Adamson, Shelby Chrisensen, Anagha Patil, Mehakpreet Sidhu, Yagmur Yurtbulmus.

Students also learned how to program robots and run digital simulations. Working from home, students translated their designs into scripts which were then uploaded to the robotics workshop at the City Building Design Lab. The lab includes Universal Co-bots mounted on a Vention linear rail. The scripts provided the instructions needed to choreograph the robots through a precise routine of picking up and stacking bricks to assemble the students' prototypes

This same method mirrors the industry process for designing buildings and houses.

The result? “Incredible,” says alumnus Seyi Oluwaseyi, MArch’18, MEDes’19, was one of the virtual guest reviewers. “In one of the videos you can see [the wall] holding someone’s weight. These students, and this program, have pushed the boundaries beyond anything that was happening in the faculty while I was there."

From Parametric Surface to Automated Brick Wall by Saba Bagheri, Gurkaran Dhaliwal, Dustin Dodd, Yasmin Tajik.

Foresight initiated this advanced education

Mark Hagel, executive director of the Alberta Masonry Council, met SAPL in 2018 at the national Canadian Institute of Planners conference in Winnipeg. Seeing the dynamic range and quality of research and student work being produced by the school, he knew a collaboration needed to happen.

“Robots are making a larger splash on the construction site of the future. We called dean John Brown almost immediately to talk about the future of the industry and digital construction,” Hagel recalls. “Masonry, being modular, lends itself really well to being constructed using robots. We are at a point where robots can install unitized glazing on towers. Masonry also needs to adapt to these emerging construction technologies to remain relevant.”

Another thing is the average age of a mason in Canada is 40 years old. Robots can help with the labour shortage of bricklayers, and productivity, especially when installing heavier masonry units.

Alberta Masonry’s sponsorship funded the purchase of two Universal robots and a massive 3D printer — one that needs a double-storey ceiling to house. This new equipment adds to SAPL’s growing digital fabrication lab, which includes two other robots, CNC machines and a roster of 3D printers.