Workers who perform the dangerous job of demolition are getting some new helpers — robots with jackhammer arms.
Members of the Twin Cities construction community got an up-close look at the new breed of remote-controlled machines this week at an event sponsored by the Minnesota Construction Association and held at Frattalone Cos. in Little Canada, where Corcoran-based Maverick Cutting & Breaking put a robot through its paces.
Maverick project coordinator Jamen Lewis and an associate stood by as they remotely controlled a small, electric-powered machine on tracks with a highly maneuverable robotic arm. At the end of it was an embedded jackhammer, which they applied to a thick chunk of concrete brought in for the demonstration.
Like a sculptor with a chisel, the operator was able to precisely guide the jackhammer arm around the slab, using it to chip away the concrete from the rebar reinforcement, all while standing at a safe distance.
Lewis said the robots are revolutionizing the world of demolition, where they are used to enhance safety and save on labor costs. They also are emissions-free, meaning they can be used for indoor demolition jobs in such places as hospitals while life goes on around them.
“They can traverse stairs, fit through standard interior door openings, and there’s a lot of safety value in them,” he said, adding that Maverick was one of the first companies in the Upper Midwest to use the machines.
“We use them for high-risk stuff that you wouldn’t want to use an employee for,” he said. “An example of that is demolishing concrete staircases. In the past, what we’d do is send a worker in with a jackhammer. Anytime anyone is operating an air tool like that there are vibrations and there is a risk of the stairs collapsing.”
Instead, he said, it’s much safer and more efficient to send in a robot. This has proved to be especially useful in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, where the robots are being used to take out old staircases in former industrial buildings being converted into new housing and offices.
Lewis said Maverick has used the robots while working to reline sewer and water tunnels for the city of Minneapolis. In that kind of overhead work, he said, the operator will sit under a steel protector while the robot is out in the tunnel demolishing the old infrastructure. That way, workers are protected against the risk of a tunnel collapse.
Scott Spisak, business development manager for Frattalone Cos., said his contracting firm — which specializes partly in demolition — is a big believer in the efficiency of the robots, as well as their safety aspects.
“They can get a lot of work done in just a matter of hours, compared to the days and days it can take laborers with jackhammers and chipping hammers,” he said. “You can get these machines up on rooftops, down in basements in an elevator … pretty much anywhere.”
The robots, he said, can come in handy when working in high areas, for instance, in the removal of a multilevel parking ramp, where demolition work must begin on the top floor and move down.
The robots were recently used by Frattalone in the demolition of the 306-seat McKnight Theatre at the Ordway Center in downtown St. Paul — a move necessary to make way for a new 1,100-seat concert hall that will be the home of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
“We used them for the removal of a concrete stair tower, mounting them on fork lifts,” Spisak said. “They were operated by personnel in a separate man-basket. That way, no one needed to be exposed to the risk of falling.”
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer in St. Paul and former editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal. He has covered Twin Cities commercial real estate for about a decade.