Caterpillar Backs Bricklaying Robot

By Tim Boreham | More Articles by Tim Boreham

The robotics innovator is on the noblest of human quests: to eliminate the scourge of brickie’s crack from building sites globally.

Come to think of it, if Fastbrick succeeds in automating the ancient art there will be no brickies at all to wolf whistle at eligible female passers-by, or to down hods when the wet bulb temperature hits 31.5 degrees.

The Perth-based Fastbrick’s endeavours enjoyed an enormous boost this month, with US machinery giant Caterpillar signing a memorandum of understanding after a year of talks between the parties.

The deal, which also involved Caterpillar signing up for $US2m ($2.6m) Fastbrick shares in a placement at 10c apiece, sent Fastbrick shares soaring 50% on enormous volumes.

The idea is that Caterpillar will make and distribute Fastbrick’s Hadrian X machines, which are capable of laying 1000 bricks and hour to an accuracy of half a millimetre. A good brickie at full clip can manage around 200 an hour.

Caterpillar would pay royalties – possibly on a per-brick basis – to Fastbrick.

“They bring 90 years of machinery manufacturing know-how to the table,’’ says chuffed Fastbrick chief Mike Pivac. Like other machinery makers, Caterpillar has also invested heavily in 3D robotics technology over the last decade.

Hadrian X is Fastbrick’s second iteration of an automated bricklaying gizmo and is in factory testing phase ahead of field testing early next year. The Hadrians, which are expected to sell for around $2m, are the size of a garbage truck with a 30 metre robotic arm.

Your columnist’s earlier aspersions on hard working brickies aside, bricklaying is an arduous trade carried out in dangerous conditions. With pampered millennials not exactly queing to learn the craft, brickies are in short supply.

Initially at least, Hadrians would be used under the guidance of brickies who would still use their skills without having to do the dangerous manual stuff.

But the units are quite capable of working alone and if autonomous vehicles take off they may even drive themselves to the site. Having backdoor listed in late 2015 after raising $5.75m at 2c a share, Fastbrick looks like being the runaway techie-speccie story of 2017-18.

It’s worth remembering the MOU is just that – an MOU –and both parties can withdraw at any time. But the fact that Caterpillar is bothering with a small investment relative to its $US64bn market cap shows the boys from Illinois are serious. “These guys don’t have failure in their DNA,” Pivac says.

Fastbrick has attracted the institutional support of Regal Funds Management, which holds 10% after taking half of a stake divested by Pengana Capital and originally owned by Hunter Hall. Pengana acquired Hunter Hall after Hunter chief fundie Peter Hall’s exit, but Pengana’s mandate only covers investing in revenue-generating microcaps.

The ASX listed Brickworks, a foundation shareholder since 2005, retains 2.5%.

Caterpillar has an option to subscribe for $US8m more shares, but at 20c apiece and subject to investor approval.

Should Fastbrick need more cash – which it doesn’t have – there are plenty of brokers and instos scrambling to throw some its way.

In addition to its 764m ordinary shares on issue, Fastbrick has 77.6m options on issue.

Tim Boreham

About Tim Boreham

Tim Boreham edits The New Criterion. Many readers will remember Boreham as author of the Criterion column in The Australian newspaper, for well over a decade. He also has more than three decades' experience of business reporting across three major publications.

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