‘SAM’

 

Jonathan Waldman, Avid Reader, 288 pages, $28. Bricklaying is one of the most ancient crafts around, one that hasn’t — as Jonathan Waldman puts it — changed much since “man crawled out of the muck.” In 2006, two guys in upstate New York came up with an idea that they hoped would revolutionize the industry: They would build a robot capable of doing the backbreaking work that people had been doing for millennia. Nine years, and many, many failures later, they had a version of the robot that construction companies thought might be worth buying. Before founding their company, Construction Robotics, Scott Peters was an engineer working on fuel cells at General Motors. His soon-to-be father-in-law, Nate Podkaminer, was an architect working as a project manager for a large construction firm. Together, they conceived the idea of the robot they called SAM — for “semi-automated mason” — and began developing it. Waldman’s fascinating account follows that process from a twinkle-in-the-eye to workable result on an almost month-by-month basis. It’s a story with enough twists and turns and surprising conflict to engage even those who have never looked closely at a brick, or wanted to. It turns out there are reasons why robotics hasn’t entered the construction industry to any great extent. Waldman’s bemused account of bumpy progress, in which the innovators solved one problem only to be confronted by a dozen others, provides a believable and intriguing look at the way technological change lurches forward, as well as a personal look at the growing pains of a new company.

COLUMBUS DISPATCH