The Amigo robot speeds up cement board installation, while providing safety, cost and sustainability advantages compared to traditional approaches.Peter Hartvigsen, CEO and Founder of KOBOTS.The Amigo robot is controlled via a smart phone app and by voice command.The Amigo can be fully assembled in less than 10 minutes.An Amigo being used in a 300m2 architect-designed villa in Odense, Denmark.

Peter Hartvigsen, CEO and Founder of construction robotics start-up Kobots, speaks about his company’s plans to empower construction sector workers, including those who install cement-based boards.

Global Cement (GC): Please could you introduce Kobots?

Peter Hartvigsen (PH): I founded Kobots in August 2018 to develop robotic technology for the construction sector. My personal background is in carpentry and I ran a construction company from 2000 to 2018. During this time, I noticed that many skilled construction workers, be they carpenters, window-fitters, or those installing cement-based boards, would typically leave the sector by their early 40s. This is due to the high physical intensity of the work. Either workers become injured or they leave when they no longer want to risk injury. A lot of training investment and experience goes to waste.

What Kobots does is provide robotic assistance to the sector to take some of the manual effort out of construction. This prolongs the careers of experienced workers, while enhancing the speed, accuracy and safety of construction sites. It also raises margins for construction firms, big and small.

GC: What are some of Kobots’ major milestones?

PH: By the time I established Kobots, the basic technology behind our ‘Amigo’ robot was nearly at the prototype stage. Indeed, the first prototype was in operation just before Christmas 2018. This provided proof of concept.

After 12 months of further development, we launched the Amigo 1.0 to the market in late 2019. At this point, the company took on a considerable additional workforce for sales and marketing. We had 66 trade fairs booked for 2020.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic had other ideas. Denmark went into lockdown the day before the first trade fair. At this point, I had to shrink the workforce back from 22 people to just eight. We had to dramatically rethink our strategy, as it was clear that trade fairs would not take place in 2020 or 2021. Indeed, it remains possible that they will never return to their pre-pandemic levels, although I hope that’s not the case. Now we make use of online sales platforms and demonstrations to interested parties.

Amigo focus

GC: How does the Amigo work?

PH: The Amigo robot is intended, as its name suggests, as a ‘friendly’ non-human assistant on the job-site. It works with construction workers in a collaborative way. Indeed, the name Kobots comes from the Danish for ‘collaborative robots.’

The Amigo can be instructed to cut cement-based board – or any other sheet-based building material – by the human via a smart phone app. This system even works in noisy

After confirming the desired dimensions, it then cuts the board with pinpoint accuracy. This can include holes for windows, beams and other fixtures. It is important to point out that the human is in control of the Amigo at all times. It is intended for ease of use. We call it a ‘smart tool.’

GC: What are the advantages of using an Amigo?

PH: As the Amigo cuts the cement-based board, the human can take on other tasks. This may include measuring the next section or fixing the board, which the Amigo has just cut, to the wall. This methodology dramatically cuts down the time taken to install the boards on a building site. Kobots typically advises a saving of 50% compared to a team of two workers, but clients report that the work can take as little as 16% of their previous best practice times. This can be achieved by using one person to cut the board using the Amigo and distribute it to as many as five or six other workers in different parts of the building.

As you can imagine, this provides significant savings to construction companies, which have become used to wafer thin margins. All Amigo users differ, but the most efficient among our clients reported that its return on investment was 32 days. The Amigo costs Euro25,000 to buy, which is the typical approach for larger firms. Smaller ones can rent an Amigo for the duration of a specific project.

Another advantage is that Amigo saves the workers from excessive board handling, which reduces the risk of injury. Workers are kept away from the noise and dust of the saw, which improves working conditions markedly.

The accuracy of the Amigo is also superior to that of a human. The edges are clean and sharp, with no dust at all. The precision is +/- 1.0mm. You can programme it to cut at 125.7mm from the edge of the board. No human has the time or hand-eye coordination to cut at 125.7mm and will most likely end up rounding the measurement to 126mm.

There are also opportunties here to reduce waste board. Early indications point to a 30% reduction. This obviously has big environmental and cost advantages for the construction firm, the client and society as a whole.

GC: What help does the Amigo need from the human?

PH: The Amigo needs to be fed with new board once it has finished cutting the previous one. This may sound onerous and some clients have even asked us to provide an automatic loader. However, this would almost quadruple the cost of the equipment. In any case, a board feeder would have to be loaded by a human. That person’s time is far better spent moving the board from a pile directly onto the Amigo!

GC: What can go wrong when using an Amigo?

PH: While the Amigo is very robust and easy to use, problems can arise. For example, there are simple procedures to go through if you lose the WiFi connection between the Amigo and the phone, or if you input the wrong information. Users frequently call us without having remembered or looked up how to reset the machine. Another tendency is for users to rush in and get ahead of themselves.

Overall, I would say that the main thing that can go wrong with Amigo is the same as any smart device, a printer, photocopier or smart watch… operator error! This is why proper training is important. Otherwise users won’t get the most out of the equipment.

GC: Are there situations in which the Amigo can actually cost the user time?

PH: This can happen in some situations, usually in smaller companies that work on individual houses. If it wants to use Amigo for cement-based board on Monday, roofing tiles on Tuesday and gypsum wallboard on Wednesday, the periods where the Amigo is actually being used will be fairly limited. There are times when it might be easier to simply employ someone to do the work instead. At the end of the day, the Amigo is a tool like any other. If you don’t use it correctly, it won’t fulfil its potential.

GC: What intellectual property protections does Kobots have in place for the Amigo?

PH: Kobots is very well covered with respect to patents for the Amigo. We have issued five international patents in Japan, China, the EU, the US, Canada and Australia, and there are a number of Danish patents pending. The patents cover crucial aspects of the frame and hardware, the fact that the cutting device is connected wirelessly to the smart phone, as well as the structure of the instruction templates. These are the key to making the Amigo easy to use. This contrasts with how computer controlled manufacturing usually works, where you have to input instructions from scratch or transfer them from computer-aided design software. At the end of the day, it is the worker on site who knows the exact next measurement for a piece of board, not the designer of the building.

GC: How are Amigo robots manufactured?

PH: We assemble Amigos to order from components supplied by external partners. Some parts are specific to the Amigo and some are off the shelf. Everything is then tested and calibrated by Kobots, with a time from order to delivery of 3 – 4 weeks.

Markets and roll-out

GC: Where are Kobots’ main markets?

PH: To date we have dispatched around 20 machines to clients in Denmark and five to Norway. We are also engaged in productive discussions with a large German house-builder regarding three projects in that country. We also have an important partnership with James Hardie regarding a gypsum-based fibreboard product. Amigo cuts this with zero dust. James Hardie even advises the users of this product to consider using the Amigo.

GC: Where are the company’s main target markets for the future?

PH: The short answer is the US, which still leads the world in board-based construction. Of course we will also look for opportunities in Europe and elsewhere, but breaking the US would be huge for Kobots. We truly believe that the potential for the Amigo is huge.

GC: Is it fair to say that Amigo is best suited to developed markets in which labour costs are high?

PH: The obvious answer is ‘Yes.’ It is a major driver behind the uptake of Amigos in developed markets. However looking more deeply, developing markets, including many that are only just coming round to the idea of board-based construction systems, are also important for Kobots in the longer term. Here it is not the labour cost that will encourage use of the Amigo, but the lack of experienced labour. This, coupled to our approach of using practical and low-cost technology, means that we have the opportunity to go in with board-based methods ‘on the ground floor’ and develop the market for Amigo alongside it. This will encourage uptake in developing markets, while lowering costs and avoiding many of the safety and sustainability pitfalls experienced in developed markets.

GC: What’s next for Kobots?

PH: The company has now re-expanded back to 22 staff and we are expanding our presence. While the delay due to Covid-19 has been very frustrating, I believe we are in a good position for the future, with other products set to be released in the coming years. All of these will act to speed up existing construction methods and empower the workforce at large.

The Amigo, and devices like it, will allow the construction sector, where productivity has barely improved in 50 – 60 years, to evolve into the 21st Century. At the end of the day, Kobots’ mindset is about empowerment. Allowing and encouraging our workers to be better versions of themselves, will benefit the company many times over. The same is true on the construction site. We are providing tools to ensure that workers’ expertise continues to be of value for generations to come.

GC: Thank you for your time and insights today Peter.

PH: You are very welcome…Peter.

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