Chapter 1: The First Brick 1. The First Brick
By the fall of 2013, Scott Peters had spent nearly a quarter of his life anticipating a brick. It was the first real brick, and at a quarter before noon on the last Friday in October, on a west-facing wall in a suburb southeast of Rochester, it finally went down. There had been other bricks, but they were mere practice bricks, not permanently bonded components of an actual building. To Scott Peters, the first real machine-laid brick—not just his first but the world’s first—seemed monumental, so on the deck of a steel scaffold, he squatted, removed a glove from his right hand, held out his iPhone, and captured what people there once called a Kodak moment.
Scott, thirty-five years old and over six feet tall when upright, was wearing jeans and leather boots and a mud-smudged green jacket and, to insulate himself from the cold of western New York, a warm blue beanie beneath his white hard hat. Beneath the beanie was the same close-cropped swimmer’s haircut he’d had since childhood, and beneath the haircut and a scruffy beard was a boyish, toothy, open face. As the first brick went down, he was too focused—and too exhausted—to smile. Without saying a word, he pressed record.
He captured the motion of a unique contraption. Sitting on a pair of vertically aligned roller-coaster rails, it resembled neither vehicle nor construction equipment. Ten feet tall, it loomed over everyone on the scaffold like an elephant. From one of its sides, an electrical cord, an air line, and a water hose ran to the puddled ground. From another, a mechanical crutch—a peg leg, basically—pointed down. There was cardboard taped to part of it, a heating pad wrapped around part of it, and mortar slowly leaking from another part. A massive steel cabinet hid a tangle of circuitry. Stylewise, the contrivance had a lot more in common with a tree house cobbled together by ten-year-olds than an iMac or even a minivan. Two screen gates—more or less chicken wire—ensconced the thing, and a rolled-up silver tarp covered it.
Under the tarp, a gargantuan articulated silver arm, made in Switzerland, began to bend at the elbow. Above the elbow, on the arm’s bicep, was a white sticker that said construction robotics. Below the elbow, there was a mechanical claw that grabbed a brick from a seesawish table at the end of a conveyer jutting out from the machine’s left side. The arm swung around and brought the brick to a central plastic nozzle. The machine hissed for five seconds and squirted mortar onto the bed of the brick.
The brick was a utility brick, 3?" x 3?" x 11?", made in Ohio by the Belden Brick Company of clay dug from deposits laid down in the last ice age. It contained five square holes and weighed ten pounds. It was unremarkable, and yet …
The arm twisted and extended beyond the edge of the scaffold, across two wooden planks, and into the crisp autumnal air. It descended toward the left side of a short factory wall and, as it did so, rotated the butter side down. Some mortar fell off in dribbles. As the arm lowered toward a band of white stone, it slowed as if coming in for a landing, and two red laser dots appeared beside the gripper. “Holy crap,” someone said. At touchdown, there was a hum, like the first half of a siren’s wail—and then the gripper opened, and the arm rose. Someone else yelled, “Woooo!” The brick remained where it had been placed, one small part of an otherwise good-looking, weather-resistant, durable edifice.
The whole movement—from pick to butter to place and back—took fifty seconds, which was, as far as paces went, far from record-setting. A human mason could have picked, buttered, lit a cigarette, taken a drag, shot the shit, scratched his ass, kept tabs on his foreman, looked out for OSHA, and still placed his brick before fifty seconds had elapsed. The world’s fastest bricklayer could have placed a couple dozen bricks in that time. Scott Peters, an engineer so persistent that he’d never put the word “that’s” before the word “impossible,” said nothing. He had aspirations far beyond fifty seconds and dreams that involved much more than short factory walls.
He wanted to revolutionize construction, the second-biggest industry in America.
But first, he attended to the second brick, because after fifty seconds of glory, his five-thousand-pound bricklaying machine was stuck.
In the scheme of things, the inauspicious debut was a predicament of minor technical consequence, and yet a lot hung in the balance—not just for Scott but for America. Brickwork, having endured decades of decline, was disappearing. Who cared about bricks? Nobody. And everybody.
Bricks strike a sociological nerve, presenting a familiar, comforting fabric in our lives. Bricks make schools feel school-like and churches church-like and factories factory-like and banks bank-like and firehouses firehouse-like; they make institutions feel institutional. Bricks give neighborhoods, and cities, and whole regions of the United States their character, to say nothing of what they grant to European countries, where bricklaying reached its greatest heights and from which American brick masonry traces its origins. No other architectural material registers so evocatively, so naturally. Think of Williamsburg, or Fells Point, or Pioneer Square, or Chestnut Hill, or Lincoln Park, or Whittier, or the North End: Chances are, walls of baked clay units come to mind. Plop a New Yorker in Kathmandu and the Nepalese bricks cast a spell over the foreigner, suggesting he’s not so far from the Big Apple. Clay resonates. Around the world, across religions, mythology has it that God fashioned mankind out of clay. “We are the clay,” Isaiah instructs. Like us, bricks are of the earth; like us, bricks breathe; and like us, each brick is imperfect but also good enough.
Bricks also bear great historic significance. On some level, since the time of Noah, bricks have become unconsciously in us, of us. In a time when the phrase “brick and mortar” evokes the quaint Main Street past, it’s easy to forget that brickwork has a lineage so long it’s been called aristocratic. Bricks, Shakespeare knew, testified for generations. “Kingdoms are clay,” he wrote. The greatest city on earth owes its existence to clay, and bricks resurrected American cities from coast to coast when other materials proved unworthy. It was a brick wall that withstood the breath of the Big Bad Wolf, and it was bricks that this nation’s earliest settlers, in Jamestown and Roanoke, set to baking immediately upon their arrival. To manage water and fire, you need bricks. As one old-time brickmaker put it, everything made by brick becomes an everlasting monument, revealing “in nature’s eloquent tongue of silence … the modest virtues and worth of the maker.” Only a fool would dare praise vinyl siding in such terms. Ever stylish, bricks command respect that the prefabricated panels of America’s strip malls do not. The way the old brickmaker saw it, “but for clay, the world would be an arid, lifeless waste.” A stretch, perhaps—but a brickless civilization, for all its slickness, would in fabric and texture also feel alien, and somehow betray our humanity.
Rising labor costs and declining productivity, though, were turning builders away from the world’s most universally available building material (superior in strength, durability, environmental impact, and performance) and toward materials—vinyl, aluminum, glass, and steel—that could be put up more quickly (and hence cheaply). Without an overhaul in the trade’s standard way of business, the teetering brick industry was at risk of fading into oblivion. It was true that good bricklayers were harder than ever to find, and that even the fastest one, when weighed against the march of progress, seemed slow, but the art of bricklaying, as ever, revealed a crucial metaphysical truth: Even our grandest aspirations require piling up innumerable small units in accordance with the law of gravity.
In this way, the business opportunity that Scott Peters saw in the decline of bricklaying was a great deal more than that—but being stuck after placing just one brick left him no closer to addressing it. Ironically enough, Scott had brought the present predicament on himself. More ironically still, Scott’s engineers had warned him. His chief engineer, in fact—a lively mustachioed tinkerer named Rocky Yarid—had spent a good portion of the previous five frantic months lambasting Scott for pursuing quick and dirty engineering solutions. “People don’t remember the quick,” he’d said, “but they remember the dirty.” Scott, though, had insisted on speed—partly due to his nature, partly due to the wisdom he’d picked up from a particular start-up book, and partly due to finances, most of which had their origins in the bank account of his gray-haired co-founder, Nate Podkaminer. With only so many funds, Scott had been pushing to innovate quickly—more quickly than Rocky or his five colleagues could handle.
The six engineers did not lack experience. They’d designed and built houses, musical instruments, windshield wipers, multimillion-dollar X-ray-film factories, and the laser recorder with which Disney digitized Snow White. Three had come from Kodak and, between them, had enough years on the job that they could recall not just when the company transitioned from pension plans to 401(k)s but when the buildings where they once worked were blown up live on TV. Two others, like Scott, had come from General Motors. In the factory where GM once made carburetors for Cadillacs and fuel injectors for Corvettes, GM had been designing fuel cells. Fuel cells were supposed to be the future. But twelve years and $140 million were not enough to bring about that future, and a year earlier, the fuel-cell lab had been shuttered.
These refugees of major American industry knew their young boss was smart and ambitious and uncompromising, and they appreciated Scott’s disregard for meetings, documentation, and hierarchy—but they also found his approach overly aggressive. The way Scott saw it, if nearly one hundred thousand airplanes could land squarely on U.S. runways every day, how hard could it be to put a fraction as many bricks squarely where they belonged? He wanted to get building hastily. To his engineers, important things—like wisdom and finesse—were being lost in the rush. Then again, they also knew that a bricklaying machine like the behemoth before them could never have been built at a place like Kodak. Nimbleness might have caused headaches, but it begat innovation. “Quick and dirty” was what got Americans in space, after all.
The headache registered loudest to Rocky, because his boss had committed to using the bricklaying machine on the job before the machine had even been assembled. Faced with such pressure, Rocky had come up with a refrain. “Mr. Peters,” he kept saying in faux formality, “you can’t make a baby in three months with three women.” What he meant was: Scott’s approach to product development, reliant on an all-success schedule, was untenable. He was engineering too fast.
Scott’s radical approach was what led to 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. Those rails had bent and bound up—preventing the machine from rolling twelve inches to the right. So after loosening the contraption’s wheels and engaging the hydraulic peg leg, Rocky, in a dirty brown Carhartt onesie, repeated his refrain, put his hands out, and leaned in to the machine. With half of his colleagues, he busted his butt pushing the big, unwieldy baby to the next brick.
The bricklaying machine was called SAM, for “semi-automated mason,” and by Friday’s end, it seemed not so much semi as barely. Merely moving the machine from where it was assembled to the job site had been such a fiasco that Scott couldn’t bear to watch. Lifting the behemoth required a massive forklift, and it took the forklift a full day to transport the SAM-scaffold-rail combo less than a quarter mile. Once in place, it took three days of coaxing—pumping mud, exercising the arm, aligning the lasers, adjusting settings, remounting components—just to get that first brick. By the time the workday was over, long into overtime territory, SAM had put down all of 108 bricks, which was only a fraction of what even the laziest human bricklayer typically laid.
For Scott, the number was hard to digest. For eight years, he’d dreamed of a machine so dominant, so refined and widely dispersed, that it would render today’s antiquated hand-laying technique obsolete.
In many ways, such a shift was to be more significant than the much heralded move to self-driving cars, because horseless carriages have been evolving for a hundred years, thanks to armies of engineers and billions of R&D dollars. Bricklaying hasn’t changed since man crawled out of the muck. As ever, laying bricks requires hard work and a lot of time. Old-timers know that bricklayers lift the equivalent of a Ford truck every few days, basically trading a body for a paycheck. That trade frequently results in wrist damage, elbow damage, knee damage, rotator-cuff surgery, back surgery. Scott wanted his contraption to free men from that burden, and to free construction firms from reliance on bricklayers who slept in, or showed up hungover, or laid bricks slowly or sloppily or with a bad attitude. A machine that laid bricks would be unstoppable, tireless. Such a machine was … the future!
But placing six narrow courses of bricks on that first day had entailed such a fight that to Scott, the remaining thirty seemed like a million.
Nevertheless, Scott and his engineers climbed onto the scaffold day after day and kept at it. After two weeks, even if their rhythm wasn’t smooth, they developed a feel for their machine, and had a short segment of real wall that they could point to as evidence of the machine’s potential. At this point, Scott invited the world to see SAM, because his approach called for it. While SAM didn’t exactly deserve to be seen, it needed to be—because Scott wanted to hear precisely what needed improving, and not just from some focus group. He wasn’t a bricklayer, after all. He was a process engineer.
Also, he wanted some publicity.
For the occasion, he set up a large tent and ordered barbecue. The day was cold and drizzly but not too wet to lay brick. Dozens of people showed up at the construction site in Victor, and those excited about SAM but unexcited about the weather watched the machine from live-feed screens in the tent.
Nate, Scott’s co-founder, had wanted to invite the big boys of the construction world—Bechtel, Fluor, Kiewit, Turner, Skanska, Clark, Mortenson, Yates, Suffolk—all of whom did over $2 billion of work annually. Companies like that could afford to invest two thirds of a million dollars in the latest technology and would recognize advancement when they saw it. It was probably for the best that the Big Boys were not invited and that men from ten smaller companies showed up. To Scott, these attendees still seemed like gods of the masonry world—among them a crew from Maine Masonry, a mason from Syracuse, a mason from Ontario, and eight men from Belden Brick, the country’s premier brickmaker.
The visitors were not enthusiastic, but they were honest, as brick men tend to be. One, who clambered onto the scaffold, told Scott that the machine was really cool but was “not there yet.” He encouraged Scott to keep going. Another, who had known Nate for a long time, said SAM was “never gonna make it.” “Nate,” he said in the tone of an oncologist, “you’re wasting your time.”
But another visitor, the owner of the building under construction, told Scott he liked what he saw, not because of SAM’s proficiency but because SAM’s presence was compelling bricklayers elsewhere on the job to work faster. They didn’t want to get beaten by a bricklaying robot.
Uninvited, a representative of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers showed up, making Scott and Nate nervous. “Who’s the mason on this job?” he demanded. The BAC, which had a long history of turf battles, did not want machines taking away the jobs of union men; neither did it want jobs that ought to be theirs going to lowly operators or laborers. Delicately, Scott and Nate pointed the representative to two Syracuse masons who were working alongside SAM. A father-and-son outfit, these masons were also friends of Nate’s—and believers in SAM’s potential. The older one, who had inherited the business from his father, had written, “This robotic concept could be the next generation in our business… . You either embrace a new technology or you’re left behind.” In wonderment, trying to avoid getting run over or punched by the monstrous machine and also not to block its lasers, he and his son tooled the mortar between the bricks SAM laid.
This assistance was part of what made SAM only semi-automatic: The machine merely placed bricks, leaving beads of squished-out mortar between them. To make the wall look presentable, men still had to clean it up before the mortar hardened. Doing so entailed swiping the wall with a trowel, to knock off excess mortar, and then—with a tool that looked like a handheld lightning bolt but may as well have been a Sharpie—gently striking the joints to give them a uniform concave profile. This involved a downward motion for the head joints and a sideways motion for the bed joints. It also demanded full attention, because nearly all of the joints contained voids where no mortar had squished out. Like potholes, these had to be filled in. Had there been only a few such voids, a mason could have repaired them by pressing marbles of mortar into the wall with his thumb. Instead, he had to dab the jointer in his right hand into the pile of mud on the trowel in his left hand and apply that glob of mortar where necessary—without, of course, slathering mortar all over the faces of the bricks. The procedure was mundane and repetitive, but it was also delicate, precise, and revealing of so much human dexterity. Nate hoped someday to automate this routine, too, but did not mention the thought to the union rep.
A reporter from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle showed up and, in very unlab-like conditions, interviewed Scott and Scott’s business manager but not Nate—who, though his doggedness rivaled Scott’s, preferred to keep his hands in his pockets and remain far from any limelight. As much from age as from experience—he’d been working in commercial construction for four decades—he was snarkier than Scott, liable to let slip an easily misinterpreted sarcastic comment, and knew it was often best to restrain himself when it came to public relations. As he put it suggestively, he’d seen a lot.
For all of the construction industry’s magnitude, Nate knew it was full of dysfunction. On account of the industry’s wastefulness, inefficiency, and productivity that was actually declining, the construction industry got a fraction of the venture capital investment that other industries did. The $8.5 trillion construction industry, Nate knew, was famously stubborn in its adoption of new technology, and the few advances embraced by the industry only proved the point. As such, the construction industry was not where most looked for innovation. Nate didn’t say it to the reporter, but to him the construction industry was veritably begging to be disrupted.
Given the chance, a more skeptical reporter might have pointed out that you’d have to be brave, foolish, or masochistic to pursue such a path.
It was fortunate that the reporter did not talk to Rocky, because to Rocky, the whole endeavor seemed so crazy that he wondered: What the hell am I doing this for? For weeks, his days had started at four a.m. and ended at ten p.m., under floodlights. They ended this late because Scott always wanted more bricks laid by SAM; he wanted numbers in the triple digits and dreamed of four digits. Bricks in the wall, he said over and over—as if he could will it to be. And for two weeks, Rocky felt like he’d been flirting with danger. Though he had been reassured that the scaffold could handle the combined weight of the huge machine, bricks, and humans, he remained ready to jump off to the safety of the ground at any moment.
In any case, Scott did most of the talking. Though he well knew Construction Robotics’ mission statement and elevator pitch, he didn’t quite blurt them out. In his defense, he was new to PR, and he was overwhelmed. He wanted to say: Just as robotics and automation are commonly found in factories today, we believe they will become standard on construction sites in the future. In other words, the same robots that could spit out an electric shaver every other second in a Netherlands factory were steadily making their way out into the world, not just in cars that drove themselves but in fruit-picking robots, dishwashing robots, boat-cleaning robots, laundry-folding robots. In the next five years, others would emerge that mixed drinks, sliced pizza, flipped burgers, even assembled IKEA furniture. This was perhaps the movement of the twenty-first century—even if, among non-engineers, it prompted a general anxiety that robots were on the verge of replacing humans, of obviating manual labor and putting a vast swath of Homo sapiens out of work. But Scott wasn’t trying to replace humans; his aim was to combine forces, and save men their jobs by marrying man and machine. By creating a bricklaying robot, he aimed to eliminate lifting and bending and repetitive-motion injuries in humans; to improve the quality of walls; to finish jobs faster and safer and cheaper; and to ease project scheduling and estimation. Basically: to modernize the world’s second-oldest and most primitive trade. Surely this last quip would have done well in a newspaper.
What Scott actually said was that he aspired to bring robotics to the construction industry, and that his goal was to take what he’d learned—his “learnings”—from the contraption before him and apply it toward the next iteration. This variety of looking ahead, and of stealthily spinning failure as opportunity, was pure Scott.
Scott did a good bit more spinning—not by lying but by not revealing the whole truth.
He didn’t mention the difficulty of transporting his contraption to the job site or the effort it took to get the first brick. He didn’t mention that the human masons attending SAM, who were so optimistic in their embrace of new technology, had to use the heels of their trowels to tap every one of SAM’s bricks into proper position, followed by a quick check with a long level, since the robot never put one down dead-nuts level. He didn’t mention that SAM once punched through the wall it was building, or that his engineers, exhausted and up to their eyeballs in dirt and mortar, wanted to punch through the wall, too.
He didn’t mention that it took a few hours and ten times as many curses to make a wall map (which, from an iPad, could be fed to SAM, so that it knew where to reach out and lay bricks), or that it took so long to raise the finicky guidance lasers to the next course that, during the process, the mortar in the machine’s hopper inevitably hardened up and had to be scooped out before the machine went into rigor mortis. He didn’t mention that because the machine tolerated mortar only so thick, one of his engineers had to constantly nurse its consistency, or that on account of the cold, the arm’s transmission oil had thickened to such a degree that getting the robot to shed its arthritis necessitated predawn ignition of a space heater under the tarp, and subsequent confirmation that the whole rig had not caught fire.
He didn’t mention that for the last ten months, the company’s office had been an uninsulated modular trailer in a parking lot on the other side of the construction site, eight guys crammed into a drafty box with a microwave but no bathroom. Their situation was so grim that when people asked where they worked, they left it vague.
He didn’t mention that because he had no idea how the world would respond to a bricklaying robot, he’d not only hired a guard to watch it but installed on it a security system that he connected to his own.
He didn’t mention that his co-founder was his father-in-law, and that his business manager, Zak, was his brother-in-law (and temporary roommate)—and that, as such, his family’s livelihood hinged on the eventual success of the clunky bricklaying robot.
The frustration, the extent to which he and his employees underestimated challenges, the mountainous-looking learning curve—none of this emerged from Scott’s mouth. Nuances of a dozen varieties, compounded by the variable conditions inherent in masonry and construction, eluded him and his engineers—but all of this would have been difficult to convey, and Scott, ever the optimist, didn’t want to spew excuses.
Stepping in for his brother-in-law, Zak Podkaminer—the youngest of Construction Robotics’ employees and the only non-engineer on staff—put it concisely: “It’s really not about speed right now,” he told the reporter. “It’s more about learning.”
One week later, the pilot project came to a close less by choice than by necessity. It was snowing and the lasers couldn’t beam through all the snowflakes, leaving SAM at sea without a sextant. That SAM couldn’t tell where to place the next brick was actually of little consequence, because by then SAM, on account of a mysterious glitch, had grown insubordinate. It refused to place the last brick in the narrow patch of wall before it. In ten days (some days were so cold that mortar wouldn’t set up, so they didn’t even try), SAM had placed 1,295 bricks—for an output far less than a human’s—but it would not place number 1,296. For all Scott knew, it was about to start talking like HAL and refuse to open the pod bay doors, too. The last brick went in by the hand of Rocky.
Amazingly, the story that came out in the Democrat and Chronicle did not convey the nature of the job. Overwhelmed by the speed of Scott’s yapping (and the chaos of a construction site), the reporter wrote in his second sentence that SAM could lay as many as three thousand bricks a day. He did not use the word “allegedly,” or attribute the unverified claim to Scott, or otherwise clarify the nature of this statement. Three thousand bricks a day would have taken the alignment of the stars and the favor of the gods. SAM’s best daily performance was 150 bricks; the machine had come no closer to placing 3,000 in one day (let alone in three weeks) than it had in escaping the earth’s gravity. But the reporter portrayed it as a fact, right there on page 7A.
In that way, Scott got some of the publicity he’d wanted. Yet the publicity did little to raise his spirits, because he was sure that the words written about SAM were not the only ones on the subject. Scott suspected that those industry leaders he’d invited, having seen his bricklaying contraption flop firsthand, were now out gabbing to other industry leaders about the machine’s performance. And even Scott recognized how ridiculous that performance had been. The machine, painfully inelegant, had run so slowly that it seemed like a bad joke. The whole job seemed like a bad joke. Used to polished processes, Scott called the job disastrous: cold, exhausting, expensive, frustrating. He’d expected to feel awe and excitement, possibility mixed with ambition, but what registered as he looked up from the muddy ground was only a sense that everything had come crashing down. Upon the completion of that first wall, what Scott felt was not pride in its realization but terror that it teetered, and that the near-decade of work on which it rested was dangerously unstable.