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SAM by Jonathan Waldman


One Robot, a Dozen Engineers, and the Race To Revolutionize the Way We Build

by Jonathan Waldman

Pub Date: Jan. 7th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-5011-4059-4
Publisher: Avid Reader Press

Gripping tale of a robot arm and an unexpected application to which it was put to work.

Laying down courses of bricks is difficult work, requiring masons to lift tons of materials daily. From this observation came a light-bulb moment: A New York architect named Nate Podkaminer pondered whether it would be possible to automate the process by using a robot. Employing members of his family, he set out on the quest to construct what, in one iteration, was “an oversize contraption—capable of laying forty-pound cinder blocks as well as four-pound bricks—powered by an undersize motor, resting on undersize rails.” With tinkering, writes Waldman (Rust: The Longest War, 2015), Podkaminer and company were able to cook up SAM, for “semi-automated mason,” semi- because while the machine, built up from a Swiss-made robotic arm, was able to lift and set down bricks, it required human masons to point and clean up the mortar bonding them. (The Swiss firm “thought a bricklaying robot was crazy.”) No one involved was a bricklayer as such but instead process engineers and the like. The real bricklayers, as one might expect, were suspicious and a little hostile at first; one said, “if a robot told me where to lay bricks, I think I’d shove it off the scaffold!" Though assured that humans were in charge and that jobs for masons would grow, since lowering the cost of laying bricks would mean more brick buildings would go up in the place of steel and glass, the firm continued to meet resistance—but kept on plugging all the same, to quietly triumphant ends. As one learns a great deal about geology from John McPhee and computers from Tracy Kidder, Waldman offers a lively, accessible overview of the bricklayer’s art, which is much more complex than one might think. Apart from engendering an appreciation for the uses of technology, the author also adds to the literature surrounding the dignity of artful labor.

Human meets machine, and both prevail in an engaging story of technology and discovery.