Automated Robotic Layout (feat. Tessa Lau)

Automated robotic layout featuring Tessa Lau Construction brothers

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We talk to the founder of Dusty Robotics! Tessa brings insight of how CAD drawings have more use cases than we currently use them for and has designed a robot that takes these drawings and prints them on a site. While Tyler draws up his BattleBot, Tessa talks about how humanitarian issues created a desire to enter the robotics field and finding creative ways to help people. Designated as a Chief Robot Whisperer, Tessa’s goal is to create robots that can do the things we can’t or don’t want to do.

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Tyler: Welcome to the Construction Brothers Podcast. I'm your host, Tyler Campbell, and with me like he is every week: My brother, Eddie Campbell. 

Eddie: What's up, Tyler? 

Tyler: Not much, Eddie. Well, this week: Tessa Lau, Dusty Robotics. 


Interview: (12:44)

Eddie: Alright, Tessa, thanks for joining us today. Why don't you tell us who you are and what you do?

Tessa Lau: My name is Tessa Lau and I am the CEO and co-founder at Dusty Robotics.

Eddie: Awesome. Tell us about Dusty Robotics. How did it begin and what do you guys do?

Tessa Lau: So Dusty started about two years ago when I was remodeling my house. It's my second robotics startup, so I wanted to create another startup in the robotics space using what I know. I was in the middle of a house remodel and I saw all of these contractors coming to my home, using hand tools and doing work on my house. And I thought there's gotta be a better way. And so I founded Dusty. I spent six months walking around on construction sites, learning everything I could about different kinds of construction and what the challenges are. And we came up with this idea that we think is really going to impact the industry.

Tyler: So what are your robots doing, exactly?

Tessa Lau: The way we think about it is we're building robots that do things better than people can do them. And typically these are things that no one wants to do or that are really fiddly or really precise or really dirty, dangerous, dull, that kind of stuff. And what we're focusing on right now is we're looking at the construction process as a manufacturing process, right? You design all of your parts, your buildings, and then you prepare CAD drawings of what you want to be constructed onsite. And today you hand that off to people in the field who are on their hands and knees with measuring tape and string measuring out those plans in detail on the floor and, not so surprisingly, sometimes they mess up. And so what we're building, you can think of it as a Roomba crossed with a printer, we call it a layout printer or field printer, and it comes through and it takes your CAD and it draws it full size on the floor for you.

Tyler: So you're feeding in the CAD files and then it's reading from that. You're setting up points, I would imagine, around the perimeter of the job site and then it's running out there. I mean, is that fair? 

Tessa Lau: That's exactly how it works. Well, we use a total station for positioning. So the same way you station a total station off of control, that's marked on the floor, we'll station our total station. And then we take that prism that you've used with your total station and we put it on board our robot. And then everywhere our robot moves, it's being tracked by our total station. And it's telling it exactly where it is. And we're capable of marking points in lines with sixteenth of an inch accuracy, as long as our control is accurate.

Eddie: That's an incredible time savings, I would imagine, because the robot is going through and just continually marking things. And the accuracy is awesome, too. What kind of challenges are you seeing with the tech? Like what kind of things are you rubbing up against that are kind of harder edge cases for you to get at?

Tessa Lau: Yeah. So one of the things that we're struggling with right now—so we're on our first production project. It's a full building project in downtown San Francisco, 13 stories, and they're using Dusty on every single floor all the way up. We're on our second story right now. One of the challenges in building robots is, you've probably seen Roombas, right? You know, the robotic vacuum cleaners, a lot of people have them, and what they do, they'll bounce around your house until it's clean. So you can imagine, you put a room on a big open wide room and it just runs this lawnmower pattern and it cleans the space pretty quickly. But you put a Roomba in a cluttered room, it has a really hard time, right? It's gotta thread its way through all of those children's toys and chairs and knickknacks on the floor. And so it takes it a lot longer to clean. And that's one of the things we're struggling with right now. You know, we come on some sites and there are all these stub ups in the floor. There's columns everywhere. There's materials that people have left behind. And it's a lot more challenging environment than some of the more open, big, open, wide, flat spaces that we've seen before. So that's one of the things that we're working on now, where we've got a lot of ideas about how to make it work better and faster in that kind of environment. So our engineers are hard at work.

Tyler: I have a Roomba at home, so I definitely resonate with it getting stuck on kids' toys. It grabs onto stuff and it won't let go. So I would imagine that you would need to have somebody there kind of, I mean, lack of better word, but babysitting it along and making sure everything's going right. That's a really great starting place though, man, that is so cool that you're able to draw these floor plans out. So I would imagine these lines would get kind of scuffed up over time as well. So what have you guys done to keep the lines from getting scuffed up or damaged while people are just moving around on site?

Tessa Lau: You know, I didn't realize until we started building this printer how much complexity there is in ink. So the marks we make are, we're actually not, we're not using chalk. ‘Cause chalk blows away pretty easily, unless you can, even if you clear coat it, it still doesn't last forever. We also had the idea that we wanted to do way more than just mark lines. There's all this information that could be useful to the guys in the field, as they're building now, we wanted our system to be able to print those things. And so we designed our system to be like an inkjet printer, kind of like the one you have on your desk at home. And so it prints with this print head and we can print up to half an inch wide text or markings or symbols or anything. And that marking that we make is made out of an ink. And it turns out that there are hundreds or thousands of different types of ink out there that we can choose from. And so we found some that range from really low permanence ones that disappear within 24 to 48 hours all the way through to really durable inks that will stay extra long onsite, even in full sun for a couple of months. So depending on what our customers want, we've got a range of options.

Eddie: I saw some pictures of the layout that your robot had done. And I mean, it's laying out the extremities of a stud wall along with JIP and then actually printing out like the door opening. So you're rendering that CAD file on the floor.

Tessa Lau: Yes, that's right. So it's a printer. So basically anything that's in CAD is what we can put on the floor.

Eddie: Are you reading layers out of these CAD files or anything like that to kind of make it intelligent? Like I do want this, I don't want that?

Tessa Lau: Exactly. Exactly. So as we prepare for a print job, we'll typically work with our customers’ VDC or BIM team on the other end and work with them to define what they want printed, in which line styles and what colors. And then they will prepare the CAD to those specifications so that when we get out into the field, all of that information is already there, ready to go.

Eddie: Really, really cool. In some ways it seems like an obvious use of robotics, but highly effective. How's it being received?

Tessa Lau: People love it. So we're out on this job, it's one of the early customers that really believed in us. They really wanted to get this out. They believe it's going to make a difference in their operations. And so they've been passionate about it from day one. In fact, the first project we did with this customer, we did back in January of this year, and it was our first paying gig, first revenue producing job. And then we're just building on that. And now we're at the point where we're doing a full building with them. And so the interesting thing, as we're on this site, we're there with our robot and our guys and then everyone's, you know, the robots doing all the work and our guys are mostly just hanging out, answering questions. And people come by and say, “This looks awesome. When can I get this on my job?” The superintendent came by, he's got a project in the area in San Francisco and it's starting up mid next year, and he's like, “I want this on my project.” One of the electrical tradesman came by and said, “I want this to mark out the outlet locations so that my guys know where to build them.” And so every time we get this out onto a site, we're starting to collect more and more interest and it's just building upon itself. We have more business than we can deal with right now.

Eddie: That's a good problem to have.

Tessa Lau: It's a great problem.

Eddie: Well, I really want to talk some philosophy with you, too, because we're, our day job’s kind of like in the BIM realm, that's what we do every day. And I have this theory that BIM is going to become kind of this linchpin in driving robotics. It's like, we're going to need model data to drive robotics. So what do you see out there? Like, let's take us into the future a little bit. What do you see happening with some of that?

Tessa Lau: I love it that you say that, because I believe that BIM models are the instructions for robots to do their thing, right? That's the instruction manual for how to build a building. And so as we get more and more robots out there, they're going to be reading BIM and figuring out what needs to go where, and they're going to start executing on those instructions and turning it into reality. If the BIM is like the floor plan, the robots are the things that turn that floor plan into reality. And we're starting with layout, but it's just going to grow from there.

Eddie: What kind of things do you see it growing into? I want into that crystal ball.

Tessa Lau: I know, I know. We haven't committed to anything yet, so I'm not gonna speculate, but just every time I walk out on a job site, I see all of these people and they're all doing these very, very repetitive, very arduous tasks. And I think, wow, a robot could do that, too. So there's a lot of possibilities out there.

Tyler: So let's get into your background a little bit, too, because I'm curious how you kind of came to that point. So did you start in construction, or how did you get into this?

Tessa Lau: So I knew nothing about construction before I remodeled my house. And that was about two years ago. So I'm a relative newbie to the construction industry. I have been in robotics for about, let me see—what is it, 2020? For about eight years now. And I didn't study robotics in school. I studied computer science and I worked for IBM for 11 years doing software automation, trying to help enterprises automate some of their business processes. And then after 11 years of that, I thought there's gotta be something better. So I want to get involved in something that can actually touch the world. And so I got into robotics and I actually got into robotics because of this project—It was run by a company called Willow Garage, which was a big research lab for robotics. And they're running this project called Robots for Humanity and Robots for Humanity was all about taking a humanoid robot and programming it to help this quadriplegic. He was paralyzed from the neck down, confined to a wheelchair, couldn’t do anything by himself. And these guys were programming this robot to help this guy do basic activities of daily living. And I thought, I've been working in software for my whole life and I cannot help a human with his basic needs. I gotta get into robotics. And so, change gears, went to work for this company to work on robots. And that was eight years ago and I haven't looked back since.

Tyler: That's so cool. All right. So I have a favorite show on TV, confessionally. It's “BattleBots.” I love this show so much and I'm sure you've heard this a ton, Tessa, but it always makes me scratch my head and say, how do you get into robotics? Like, what are some of the steps that I could take, as a builder, as a construction guy, getting familiar with some of this technology? What can I do? Or is there a kit that I can buy so I can help myself learn robotics? 

Tessa Lau: You know, the funny thing is, bring it back full circle. I would say like a lot of people that I talked to in the construction industry have tried to make their own layout robot. I've heard of so many stories. They show me a picture on their phone or like a little video that they saved of it. And usually they start with a Roomba and they program it to hold a pen and drive around in their garage and make some markings. It's actually a hard problem, which is partly why we're being successful. We've got really smart people working on it. But just to get started, it's actually easier than ever right now, because all the parts are out there. You can just buy a kit online and they don't cost that much. And you can just experiment with it. I've probably got some here in my office, just like bits and pieces of robots lying around and you can start pulling them together and programming them and making them do something fun.

Tyler: That's so cool. 

Eddie: I totally have to make fun of you though. 

Tyler: What? 

Eddie: Well, Tessa has this beautiful humanitarian story about how robots are helping people. And you're like, “I love BattleBots.”

Tyler: I’m sorry. I know. (Sighs) I don't know. Maybe it's just the boy—

Eddie: I told you we had to sound heady on this one. 

Tyler: Sorry, man. Sorry. I just want to know how to make robots fight. That's it, that's all. My ultimate goal. That's all I'm working towards here.

Tessa Lau: Hey, you know, “BattleBots,” it's sort of like video games, right? Whatever it takes to get you into technology and building stuff, it's all good.

Eddie: What are the other kinds of robots that you've been able to work with in past companies?

Tessa Lau: So my last company is named Savioke. They're still around. I was one of the founders and I was the CTO, and also the Chief Robot Whisperer around there. So Savioke builds robots that deliver room service to guests staying in hotels. This was what we thought was a fantastic idea at the time—nowadays with COVID, you know, hotel's not such a great market. But at the time I was like, awesome, because you had this little three foot tall R2D2-style, and we programmed it to take the elevators. So you can imagine this little guy trundling down the hallway, getting into the elevator, getting out on your floor and bringing you a sandwich at midnight. And it would beep at you just like R2D2 does and do a little shimmy when it's happy. And it was a fully autonomous delivery service, indoor delivery service for adults. So that was my first robot company.

Eddie: That's pretty sweet. 

Tyler: So where's the hotel at, is this still operating?

Tessa Lau: It's still a thing, they still have robots in hotels to the extent that hotels are still operating. They've still got them out there. I still have people coming up to me and saying, “Hey, I saw one of your robots out at this hotel somewhere.” And it's growing way beyond when I was there.

Tyler: Even in this COVID era, too, I mean, I would imagine that it would be growing a lot. Because even if you are staying at a hotel, not having the personal interaction between room service, that would be huge.

Tessa Lau: Yeah, no, I saw a news story recently, actually, a couple of months ago, saying that delivery has skyrocketed ever since COVID, because people don't want strangers showing up to their door when they need food. They want it delivered by robot, and the robot gets wiped down in between every delivery. And so you can be sure it's sterile. And so, your food gets delivered to with no human contact—contactless delivery—yeah. Seems to be a winner. 

Tyler: You know, I think part of the show that we love is that we always look outside of the industry at some of the different technologies that are happening out there. So we love watching Amazon and UPS and stuff come up with all these autonomous vehicles that are scurrying around in neighborhoods and stuff. But beyond that, you came out of not the construction industry and you came into the construction industry and you're innovating in it. And I just think that's so cool because it feels like there's this, I don't know if it's stigma, but like you have to be in the construction industry for a long time in order to effect change. I'm not saying that you only have to be in the industry for a long time to effect change, but I love that you've only been in it for two years and you're affecting it at such a level. That's just so cool to watch. I love it. And I applaud you for it. So awesome.

Tessa Lau: Yeah. You know, I think the key to it for us was really going in with an open mind. My co-founder and I, we know robotics, we didn't know anything about construction and in the first couple of months we would walk onto a job site and we would have no idea what we were looking at. And so we got really lucky that we found some good advisors who were willing to walk the sites with us and explain what we were seeing and introduce us to some people and talk about their jobs and all the different roles and responsibilities, and really learn how this industry is structured. It's pretty complex. I think I was on a project that had maybe 2000 people on it at the peak and every one of those people was doing something different. And so if you go into it and you don't know anything about construction, it's daunting to figure out. Where do you start? So I see a lot of construction tech startups struggling to find value prop. I think we got lucky, or maybe it's a combination of luck and skill and a prepared mind, but it's definitely a challenge to figure out, where can you create something that has value and that can be doable with today's technology as well?

Eddie I like the problem solution approach that this came out of—you saw something and you said “There's a better way.” And then you came up with a solution for that. A lot of people in our industry are very slow to adopt new things. And we're notorious for that. We get in a position where people make excuses. They're like, “Construction's too dynamic for robotics to work.” You know, there's just too much going on. There are too many people, there are too many things laying on the floor for this to actually work. From your perspective, it would seem that if anybody was going to be confident and able to say, “There's a solution to these problems,” you would be that person. So you feel like robotics is going to kind of find its way around this dynamic construction environment and continue to make more and more of an impact. I think I know the answer to that, but I want to throw that out there. Just kind of let you riff off of it. 

Tessa Lau: Yeah. So definitely, robotics is going to have more and more of an impact. I think that, I would say, if there are other robotics companies out there in your viewership or listening audience who are interested in getting into the construction industry, definitely take the time to learn about construction with an open mind. And see problems, not with the lens of what product do you want to build for the industry, but with a lens of what problems are the most important for your customers to solve. And that's how we landed on layout. We actually talked to a bunch of people about our idea before building anything, before even buying our first piece of hardware. I had to get myself to a really high level of confidence that if we were able to build this thing, someone would want to buy it. And we did a lot of due diligence before getting to the point where we started building a solution.

Eddie: What kind of metrics can you present somebody to kind of drive them to a decision to use this automated layout versus the traditional means of layout? How much time savings, how much better is the accuracy, that sort of thing?

Tessa Lau: Yeah. So, I love metrics, ‘cause I'm very data driven. You know, my background is science. And so I, as much as I can, I would love to rattle off some statistics and tell you. So our product is still under development, right? So we're still making it faster, better, more robust, more reliable. And so any metrics that I have right now, they're in a constant state of flux. But what I will tell you is, one of the things we track is productivity, linear feet per hour. Any drywaller will tell you how fast his crews operate. When he estimates out a job, how quickly can his crews do layout? And when we look at that number, we are significantly faster than crews, even with the technology that we have today. On this job that we're on right now, they had five days blocked out in their schedule. This was before they even wanted to ask us to come on the project. They scheduled five days per floor and that's for layout and top track. And when all said and done, they actually told us that they saved a day on that schedule, thanks to the layout that we were doing for them. It's just really accurate. They quality checked it and found no mistakes in our layout. And it's a very complex layout. It's a multifamily apartment building, lots of little studio apartments, and it's non-rectilinear. There's two different grid systems in the building as all the walls connect at weird angles, it's a very complex layout. And they were able to build off of what we did and still have a day to spare in the schedule.

Eddie: I find that when BIM data travels and we are able to have it convey from design to construction, it makes the complex problems much more simple. When a column is at a skew, when a wall is off-center or is moving off of a work point—If I have the CAD files, if I have the BIM data, it's a given, I've got the information that I need, and I love how the information is not being dumbed down. ‘Cause so many times, we find that we have robust modeling efforts and information on the top end, and because of kind of conservatism or concerns over liability, that information doesn't escape design, and it's not allowed to hit construction. It would seem that that's, that's what you guys are thriving on. You're taking that and not allowing the disjoint there where all that information is living up in design and never makes it to the field. It's getting to the field now, which I love.

Tessa Lau: Yeah. One of the ways we look at it is that our product is really amplifying companies’ investments in BIM. Like if you're doing BIM and you're wondering like, why am I even doing this if the guys are all going to build off the shop drawings anyway? We're here to tell you, look, the reason you're doing it is because you can take that same model that you just created, that you spent all of your time building in perfect fidelity, and you can transfer that a hundred percent accurately out to the field with no human involvement. There are not going to be people in the loop that are making mistakes on dimensions or on measuring or snapping. And that makes it much more powerful. So that artifact that you create, that BIM model, it just becomes so much more valuable. 

Eddie: You can take it from me that this is exciting and scaring two groups of architects, two groups of engineers, all at the same time. There are some that are going, “We model accurately, we see to the fidelity of what we do. We love this. We want it to trickle down.” And there's a whole ‘nother group that's like, “Uh-uh, not mine. You are not allowed to have that data.” Which is unfortunate because that does leave it to the shop drawing creators to now recreate the data, recreate the wheel. And probably from a dumbed down—I say dumbed down, probably from a PDF version that had some 3D origination point. That's the shame of it, is that it was up there and robust. 

Tessa Lau: It’s a shame. I think we’ve got to get away from that as an industry. We have to centralize on one model and it's the same model that gets designed and built, right? Because every time you have people looking at something and modifying it and changing it, you're having the possibility of introducing more mistakes. And that's what causes projects to take more time and cost more money.

Eddie: Yup. Yeah. Federating models and bringing them together in one environment and seeing to the 3D data, making sure that it's buildable 3D data, is huge. So you're really speaking to something that we're passionate about anyway. So I love that this is printing the byproducts of what we do every day. 

Tyler: I think that your work is going to force a lot of people to change, because they're going to see the benefits out of the robotics, right? They're going to start seeing that and it's gonna make them stop white-knuckling these documents, these CAD files, and start handing them out. I love that. You know? The robotics are forcing it.

Eddie: Well, your customers will require that.

Tessa Lau: Yeah. That's what we're already seeing right now.

Eddie: Do you see that? I mean, I could see that in a design-build scenario where the contractor has control of the design entities, but in more of a design-bid-build scenario there that isn't there, that control isn't there, but are you seeing the contractors looking back up and saying maybe to their owners, like, “If you don't employ a designer that's going to do this it's actually costing you money and time”?

Tessa Lau: I would love it if that's the case. We're starting to collect the proof points to make our case right now. I would say it's still pretty early for us to be able to go back to the owner and say, yes, this is happening this way. But I think as we move forward and as we get more product projects under our belt, and more evidence that doing as the Dusty way is just way better for the project as a whole, we're going to start building that ammunition and creating that case for the owners to say, yes, you need do this.

Tyler: Oh, I think whenever you start collecting that data and getting all that stuff rounded out, too, I definitely want to have you back on and just have a report of like, alright, where are we at with this? What did we not know when we last interviewed you, and what do we know now? So let's let's switch gears though. I really want to get into our megaphone question. So if we gave you a megaphone that the whole industry could hear for 60 seconds, what would you say?

Tessa Lau: Ultimately, I think the industry is in the midst of a digital transformation. People are moving to BIM. It's not on every single project yet. We've certainly been on our share of projects that haven't been BIM-enabled, but it's moving in that direction. And it's coming, it's trickling down from the most complex projects down to the kind of bread and butter commercial projects and who knows where it can go in the future. And as we're seeing that digitization happen, you've got to start thinking about how are you going to take those digital models and build off of them more effectively, with fewer errors, less wasted time and more productivity, right? And we think that robotic layout is a centerpiece in any kind of digital strategy that's really trying to take advantage of the technology that's available today, or soon to be available today, and creating better project outcomes.

Tyler: Preach. That is awesome. Tessa, where can people find you?

Tessa Lau: Visit our website. It's 

Tyler: Perfect. All right. Well, thanks for joining us this week.

Tessa Lau: All right. Thank you guys. This was fun.


Tyler: Hey guys, Tyler here. Just really quick before you go, do me a favor and leave us a rating. If you're listening on Apple Podcasts, it helps us out so much. Make sure that you join our community group. You can text us at (478) 221-7009. And also, go check us out on social media at constructionbrospodcast. We're on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and also on TikTok, believe it or not. So thanks for being with us this week. Hope you have a great one. Go build something awesome.