[Translate to Englisch:] Nicklas Simon steuert den Fliesenlege-Roboter
Helluva Good Mate!

Working as a floor tiler is traditionally one of the most arduous and detrimental trades, yet salvation could be within reach: a robot is being developed at the Electrical and Information Technology faculty that could provide mobile assistance at construction sites. The building industry sector has already shown interest.

By Nico Damm, 27th January 2020

A floor tiler’s work is characterised by heavy lifting, and working in a stooped position or on their knees. In addition, they often breathe in fine dust from cutting the tiles as well as enduring the heat, cold, damp and draughts present at most construction sites. There are only a few professions where workers are frequently declared unfit to work before reaching retiring age, these include scaffolder, roofers and miners. Floor tilers occupy rang 7 in this rather disheartening table.

Simon Nicklas feels it is high time this troubled profession was given some robust support. The electro technology engineer and scientific assistant stands in the robotics lab, gazing at the vehicle that forms the core of his doctoral thesis: a tile-laying robot assistant. Plenty of sensors and regulation technology units lie on a platform beside a curved orange and grey robot arm, all resting on top of four thick tyres. The mobile assistant is placed inside a type of 12 square metre model bathroom constructed of two metre high plasterboards “it represents a typical bathroom in a German apartment house.”

Nicklas carefully guides the robot’s gripping arm – which is equipped with three vacuum suction cups at the tip – via remote control to pick up a white tile and place it accurately on the wall. “Here in the lab we use velcro fasteners so that we don’t have to keep mixing up fresh tile cement.” At construction sites the process will proceed as: the tiler stands behind the robot and uses a special apparatus to apply cement to a tile. He then places the tile in the robot’s separated working area and lets it automatically affix the tile in the correct position. In order to perform these actions, the robot has been equipped with many capabilities. It employs  four light section sensors to create a highly precise image of the working area and is able to sense immediately if a collision is imminent.

"We aim to work at least as quickly as a person"

The project is being funded for two years by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research to the tune of €1,142,000, of which €650,000 is hallmarked for the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences (h_da), and it began towards the end of the year. ‘MAROON’ stands for ‘Mobiles arbeitsunterstützendes Roboterfliesenlegesystem’ (Mobile Work-Support Robotic Tile-Laying System). The project has brought the research group ‘Assisted Working and Automation’ from the h_da together with the robotic specialist firm Arotec (a former Kuka subsidiary), the Wiesbaden building contractor firm Brömer & Sohn GmbH and the metal working mid-sized company Pro Move GmbH. Subcontractors include the Institute of Labour Science at the TU Darmstadt (IAD) and the software firm Open Experience GmbH. The project’s firm objective, as Nicklas says: “we aim to work at least as quickly as a person, if not quicker, and with greatly improved ergonomic conditions.”

Before things could start, Nicklas himself had to learn and understand what the robot is now capable of doing: “I’d previously patched up a tile in the bathroom, at most” recalls the engineer with a grin. He approached the issue firstly via explanatory videos from a local DIY store – eventually, the manual skills and knowledge were provided by the tile layers from  building contractor firm Brömer – “we went on to carry out extensive analyses of the entire process at a variety of construction sites.” The analyses aimed to identify all of the requisite processing steps involved, as well as to discover how stressful each one was for people. In order to evaluate each task according to varying criteria the IAD experts were faced with questions such as: how much exertion is required? How often are specific steps repeated? How arduous is the body posture thereby?

As Prof. Dr. Sven Rogalski, who heads the research group, emphasises that the finished product is intended to assist workers, not replace them. This assistance is urgently required: “skilled  craftsmen are in short supply – and they are aging.” The aim is to relieve workers of the stress of having to perform tasks which are especially detrimental, and to enable them to continue working, even if they are beset with physical restrictions, “our assistance system can help out here.” The mid-sized company Pro Move, which as an ‘Inklusionsfirma’ also employs people with disabilities, provided specialist knowledge and experience of how best to integrate people with physical impairments into work processes.

Probably too expensive for smaller building projects

From a technical standpoint it is possible to automate tile-laying a lot more. As Nicklas points out, for example, it is already quite normal in some countries for fully tiled wet cells, complete with pipes and fittings, to be integrated as finished units at construction sites – although there are no plans to do this here, “we’re proud of German craftsmanship.” Robots naturally come up against their limits as well: ‘MAROON’ cannot crawl into tight spaces, for instance, nor is it yet capable of cutting or arranging tiles itself, plus it would probably be too expensive for smaller building projects, even if it was rented. As Simon Nicklas says, there were some attempts to develop more highly automated systems, yet these were less mobile, for the three components of the Darmstadt prototype – robot arm, platform and tile magazine – can be separated in order to be carried to a different storey.

The rolling platform enables the robot to either navigate around a room by itself or be controlled via the joystick, plus, special sensors even permit it to carry out quality control itself. The unit collects lots of data as it works: how many tiles have been laid? Where is it in the room precisely? How far has the work progressed? In Nicklas’ opinion this is ideal for the construction site of the future. Their time is now ripe: “processes within the construction industry have hardly been digitalized at all, quite in contrast to industrial processes.”

Tools could also become digital soon

The benefits of a networked construction site are all too apparent for engineers: if building progress is documented live than new materials would only need to be ordered when they were actually required. For at urban building sites in particular, the space for storing building materials is extremely limited. Plus, although all documentation is still carried out with pen and paper, pretty soon even tools could become digitalized. Then the slitting cutter could directly and precisely indicate where these cable channels were located in the walls. Rogalski has a similar viewpoint as he points out that traditional trades are beginning to change: “in the future, tile layers will need to learn automation processing as well – it will be a similar case and change to that of auto-mechanics into auto mechatronics.“ The engineer also feels that exoskeletons – robot suits – could also soon be assisting people at building sites. These have been under development for several years, outside of military circles as well.

The building trade is certainly taking notice: there are plans to test the robot assistant soon at selected building sites, letting it lay a few square metres of tiles to see how it functions under realistic conditions, with a large German building contractor interested in participating. The Wiesbaden mid-sized company Brömer has also said they will have direct use for the robot at their sites. Yet as Rogalski says, first the prototype must prove its worth, “we want to establish the unit’s theoretical and practical viability, then it’s up to the firms taking part to get the whole thing ready for the market.” Meaning it may well be possible in the future that tile layers only retire once they’re a bit older.

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Contact details

Nico Damm
Science editor
Tel.: +49.6151.16-37783
E-Mail: nico.damm@h-da.de

Further information