Dusty Robotics scales project layout automation
Mountain View, California-based construction robot solutions provider Dusty Robotics announced May 10 that it has closed a $45 million Series B round, raising overall funding for its FieldPrinter robotic layout robot increased to $68.7 million.
Financially, they are well ahead of their main competitor, Houston-based Rugged Robotics, and this funding allows them to scale their go-to-market and manufacturing to ensure market dominance. Another company in an adjacent room, TinyMobileRobots, was used for the site layout, but can only print lines and not other data from a sheet set or BIM (Building Information Modeling) application like FieldPrinter can.
The round was led by Scale Venture Partners and joined by returning investors Baseline Ventures, Canaan Partners, Root Ventures, NextGen Venture Partners and Cantos. The company will use these funds to expand its team, expand its product offering and accelerate manufacturing with the goal of using Dusty products on all construction sites in the United States
Scaling robot site layout
Series B funds typically come after a startup has demonstrated market acceptance and a growing client base, and in a debrief with ForConstructionPros the day after the announcement, Dusty Robotics founder and CEO Tessa Lau said she has a gaining strong acceptance from major nationwide general contractors. In the first quarter of 2022 alone, the contractor commissioned Dusty’s FieldPrinter solution to print floor plans on 25 million square feet of construction space. The robot can handle site layout ten times faster than humans with a plumb line and chalk, and can achieve an accuracy of 1/16th by an inch. The robot must be coupled to a Leica Geosystems total station, which transmits geolocation data via a built-in prism, and also requires a clean, dry surface.
The robots use standard HP ink cartridges and can also use printers from other manufacturers.
“We have a standard ink cartridge available in our online store,” Lau said. “The printer can produce many different colors. HP and a number of other companies make compatible cartridges, but we reviewed them to see which worked best with our printer.”
Dusty Robotics technology enables drywall, mechanical/electrical/plumbing, and general contractors to map data from a BIM (Building Information Modeling) file to the floor of a project site, replacing chalk lines traditionally used to Wall locations, rough door openings, soffits, hanging points and labels, wall penetrations, duct runs, equipment labels, plumbing and sprinkler systems, room labels, finishing plans, casing work, offsets, door strikes and more.
But according to Lau, one thing holding the company back was the supply chain. Dusty Robotics sources parts and components that are assembled in a final manufacturing process at the company’s Mountain View headquarters.
“The biggest thing limiting our growth is that we can’t build as many of our printers as we wanted,” Lau said. “That is because of the supply chain and also because of capital constraints. With this infusion of capital, we unlock these things. We had two year lead times for some of the parts going into our printers. One of our challenges was the procurement of engines. A lot of what we plan to do is remove these restrictions and as you increase the size of your orders you will get a higher priority from manufacturers.”
Lau is also expanding her team and has hired a production manager to oversee both assembly and the supply chain, as well as additional engineering staff to further develop the product.
The recently released iteration of the robot will also help scale the technology and reach more contractors thanks to improved usability.
“We just released our version 1.0 with improvements,” Lau said. “This is the first version that we believe will be suitable for the mass market – it can be used by all of our customers. On a construction site, the foreman is usually the one operating the robot, and sometimes that can be a younger, more tech-savvy guy — but sometimes it’s the guy who’s about to retire. One of the great things we just developed and released in 1.0 is the ability to work on more congested construction sites. On typical construction sites, a lot of material is piled up or other trades are running around on the floor. You can’t get a floor as clear as you’d like. We are also often deployed on construction sites with floor-to-ceiling concrete projections. Our customers want to create layouts despite these posts.”
The workaround was to equip the robot with the ability to bypass obstacles.
“Our system can detect and avoid obstacles,” Lau said. “We have a couple of different sources of information about the location of these obstacles that we can work with. Since we are a layout robot, we have the floor plan and usually this includes where the slab, floor and supports are located. But coastlines aren’t usually mapped, so we’ve added a bumper like you’d see on a Roomba-style robot vacuum. When the robot bumps, it turns around.”
Lau said they plan to add more ways for the robot to sense its surroundings, but it’s not currently equipped with ultrasonic sensors or cameras for the sake of simplicity. Capturing visual information would then also require a machine learning process to teach the robot to identify and interpret incoming images or captured location data and redirect accordingly.
Holding hands for robot users
While the robots automate the printing of line and model data onto surfaces, Dusty Robotics offers human hands to help their customers get usable data into the robot. The robots print from common .DWG files, but there are a few tricks to successfully structuring the files.
“We typically work with coordinated BIM models,” Lau said. “We help our customers with BIM coordination and mapping the layout on the floor. We support our customers in preparing data for robotic printing and preparing for the most productive print. Our printer is then controlled from there using a Windows tablet. Once you transfer the data to the Windows tablet, you can start printing.”
The robot firmware and tablet application are regularly updated and subscribers get unlimited upgrades.
“We have constant software development going on and use an agile sprint process,” Lau said. “There is a new version every two weeks. Then we go through a testing phase and release once a month, if not more often. We try to respond very quickly to our customers – if one of them has a problem, we try to publish a solution immediately.”
Market, Prices and ROI
The robots are currently used primarily by large general contractors for several projects at the same time. The robot comes in a flight case so an operator can take it with them as they fly from one project to the next.
“DPR Construction is one of our largest customers,” Lau said, referring to the Redwood City-based self-employed general contractor. “They have four of our printers and have used them on 16 projects.”
Large nationwide generals running multiple projects simultaneously is a market for the printer, but the addressable market can include smaller generals and specialized contractors — as small as those with $10 million per year project revenue.
“One of our greatest successes is a single-family homebuilder in New Jersey,” Lau said. “They carry out a number of trades themselves and use our robots to do layouts for all the different trades on site.”
According to Lau, most contractors who can employ a robot 75 percent of the time opt for a long-term Robots-as-a-Service subscription that includes a FieldPrinter, custom total station, and tablet controller. Also included is a week of training, ongoing updates and support. Contractors in Northern California and Seattle can also opt for a special daily rental rate with full service to ensure project success.
“In the construction industry, it’s not like hiring hourly workers — partnering with Dusty is like hiring an employee,” Lau said. “Our subscription customer can take this printer, deploy it to any job site, and transport it from one project to the next in an airline-approved case.”
Operating cost profitability comes from a number of sources, including increased speed and accuracy and the ability to compress the build schedule.
“When you have something as accurate as a robot, you can have confidence that the project will render correctly,” Lau said. “Communication is also important. One of the things we found is that when you have a coordinated mockup printed out on the floor, all the trades work together and that compresses the timeline. It also eliminates wasted time searching for information as you can just look at the canvas and see what you need to construct. FieldPrinter reduces material costs because you don’t have to build the same thing twice and spend less time on rework. Safety and well-being improve because employees do not injure their backs and knees doing this work.”