Urban Machine is a robotics company based in Oakland, California, that’s on a mission to redefine the green building space by reclaiming millions of tons of wood waste from construction and demolition sites and reuse them as high volume, locally sourced, premium lumber products.
Founded by Eric Law, Andrew Gillies, and Alex Thiele, Urban Machine is striving to create innovations in sustainable practices for construction with the help of technology—specifically, its creation the company has dubbed The Machine.
As a portable system that can be brought to a demolition or construction location via two 40′ trailers, The Machine can process used lumber directly on site—thus keeping it out of local landfills—and provide ready-to-use reclaimed wood. “In the U.S. alone, we throw away 37 million tons of wood waste,” said Eric Law, co-founder and CEO of Urban Machine. “That’s about half of what we harvest every year.”
Using detectors to pinpoint metals, The Machine removes bulk fasteners and surface materials from reclaimed lumber. The wood is held in place by shuttles while fasteners are extracted by nail and staple pickers and nail rakes. If The Machine’s pickers fail to withdraw the fastener, it learns from the mistakes, makes adjustments, and then continues the process until all the fasteners have been removed. Wire brushes then remove surface materials, after which The Machine performs a quality check to ensure the wood is ready for new construction.
With the ability to pull fasteners with heads that are embedded up to 1/8″ deep in the lumber along with being able to process up to 16,000 board feet a day, The Machine can recycle dimensional lumber (from 2×4 up to 6×18), Glulam, and heavy timber. Artificial intelligence aids in planning and executing the on-site wood reclamation process by calculating the quantity and quality of wood that can be recovered at each individual site, thus driving down time and cost.
In addition to being able to bring The Machine directly to the location, Urban Machine can source reclaimed lumber directly from other demolition and construction sites. After that lumber is cleaned, it can then be sold to another project. Lumber reclamation can also provide a revenue stream for LBM dealers who partner with Urban Machine to turn lumber waste from demolition and framing into high value lumber products, after which Urban Machine promises to connect those dealers with buyers to generate sales.
After three previous prototypes, the fourth incarnation of The Machine began field testing in northern California in June. Urban Machine has plans to launch services in 12 more cities, and considering the impact of lumber reclamation, what the company is doing can have a major impact as it is rolled out on a larger scale. According to the company, a third of the world’s waste comes from building materials, and during demolition, nearly two thirds of the building being torn down goes into a landfill.
By significantly reducing those numbers, Urban Machine hopes to preserve forests, reduce logistical costs, and allow for the health benefits of reclaimed wood in the environment. As Law explains it, “We need to think about the full life cycle of products without having landfills as a solution in the equation.”