Drywall Robot Gets a Workout at Newark Civic Center Project

If the experience at Newark Civic Center project is any indication, Webcor's future -- and that of the construction industry in general -- will definitely include robots.

May 14, 2021

Technology / Innovation

If the experience at the Newark Civic Center project is any indication, Webcor's future -- and that of the construction industry in general -- will definitely include robots.

The drywall in several rooms in the buildings under construction at the project was finished not by tapers but by Canvas, a robotic arm that sprays mud and sands with a precision hard to match by laborers, producing a Level 5 finish.

 "Canvas has taken a 17-foot scissor lift and converted it so that the attached robotic arm can go up and down and spray the mud on a continuous surface," explains Webcor Drywall Operations Manager Derek Stevens. "It's all computer-generated. It knows how many millimeters to spray on the wall. Nobody is mixing mud, nobody is spraying or holding the nozzle. As a result, the wall looks magnificent."

The Newark project isn't the first to use Canvas. "We've been piloting it for the last three years," Derek says. The first test was at the Consolidated Administration Campus (CAC) at San Francisco International Airport. "I've watched it evolve since then," he says. "It keeps getting better and better."

The experience in Newark went so well for Canvas that the company developed a case study to share with prospective customers. "They don't want to be a drywall subcontractor," Derek explains. "They just want to sell these machines and teach our tapers how to use them and maintain them."

Faster Completion, Greater Safety

 In addition to producing a Level 5 finish, Canvas lowers costs, speeds completion, and improves safety. According to the case study, Canvas completed its work in four days for a 34-percent reduction in cycle time. Safety improvements are the result of workers not needing to do any work high up since the 17-foot range of the robotic arm is able to reach heights that let laborers remain at ground level.

 Vice President Todd Mercer considers Canvas a worker augmentation tool, not one that will replace workers. "It expands the capability of the existing labor force and brings stability to it," he says, adding that the labor unions are excited about it, as well. "They have already partnered with Canvas, and they want to be first in line to be trained on this equipment. They want their members running these machines." 

The adoption of tools like Canvas can also entice young people into the construction trades, according to Todd. "Using Canvas involves artistry and the hard work of being a taper and finisher, but it also expands your capabilities to be able to operate robotic equipment." 

Almost Ready for Prime Time

Canvas still has evolving to do, Derek says. "You need big, high, straight walls to spray a level 5 finish," he explains. "We gave them a whole floor and thought they'd use the machine on the whole floor, but it wasn't compatible. They were only able to use it for about 15 percent of the work. 

"We're still working with them to find projects that make sense for the machine," Derek adds. 

Once the machine is ready for prime time, it should reduce overall risk. "As a hands-on builder, we know the challenges of skilled labor available for a job," Todd says. "That presents a risk. If we can bring some greater certainty to that risk, it makes us better. It brings us greater schedule and cost certainty."