Urban Machine team uses robotics to salvage scrap lumber

“In the US alone, we dispose of 37 million tons of wood waste,” said Eric Law, co-founder and CEO of Urban Machine. “That’s about half of what we harvest each year.” Law saw a great opportunity in being able to salvage used lumber from demolition sites and scrap parts from new construction. He and his team of Bay Area startups aim to eliminate that waste and reduce the environmental impact of the construction industry. To that end, today Urban Machine announced the closing of its $5.6 million seed round, led by Lowercarbon Capital and in conjunction with GV, Union Labs and Catapult Ventures.

Law came up with the idea for the company while working in his previous position in the construction industry. “In my last job, I was researching how to salvage construction site debris,” he explained. “I found out that steel and concrete already have recycling routes. But the wood is sent to the landfill because of the metal.” Specifically, metal fasteners (nails, screws, and staples) make reusing reclaimed wood uneconomical. “I reached out to Andrew [Gillies, the company’s co-founder and CTO], who I had previously worked with, and asked, ‘Can we automate this?’” Andrew recruited Alex Thiele, co-founder and lead software engineer, and they founded the company in late 2021 with the goal of reclaiming lumber, glulam (laminated engineered lumber), and heavy lumber. A bench prototype of its system was completed in the third quarter of 2021, and the company raised its pre-funding round in the fourth quarter of last year.

Today, the company is building its first production machine. That rapid turnaround from prototyping just a year ago relied heavily on recent technological advances. “There’s been a lot of hardware development in the last few years that’s made this possible,” Gillies said. “Today’s hardware development is fast and low cost, so you can learn by trying it out in the real world.” That was critical, as the machine itself involves a bit of a twist on existing concepts. “From a robotics perspective, it’s a reverse pick-and-place machine,” he explained. “It requires perception, ‘where are all the fasteners?’, and manipulation, ‘how do we get the fasteners out?’.” The production machine currently being built is the company’s fourth iteration in just over a year, so the iteration has been critical.

The software side also benefited from modern technology. “Andrew has been putting out a new machine every few months,” Thiele added. “But it has never been easier to develop software. With machine learning, the focus is on the data, and Eric collected a lot of lumber from various job sites. We ended up with thousands and thousands of images that were fed into that machine learning. The sensor technology is also amazing. We take a photo and immediately have pinpoint accuracy on the fastener locations.”

The production machine under construction uses metal detectors and X-ray inspection as well. It is 80 feet long and has several removal steps where custom end effectors on robotic arms remove nails, screws and staples from wood. The machine fits on two standard trailers and is transported directly to the jobsite. “What we finished is better than new,” Law said. “It’s straight and dry, and since we’re working with 40 to 100-year-old wood, it’s higher quality than what you can buy today.”

The development of more capable production machinery is also opening up new business opportunities. “Our initial customers are furniture manufacturers, sawmills and finishing contractors,” Law said. “However, for volume, we will have to get into structural lumber and engineered products. Today, dimensional lumber can be graded for structural use, but there is no process for grading laminated lumber yet, so we are starting our own research project to do so.” Eventually, the team envisions automated sorting on the machine as well. The team also plans to add other products, such as plywood and siding.

“If we can capture 50% of the waste, that’s an $18 billion opportunity every year in the US alone,” Law said. “Right now all that waste is going to landfills here and incinerators in Europe. We have to reuse it.” The process saves COtwo emissions from those wastes, and reducing the amount of new wood production required.

Initially, Urban Machine will be in the timber business. “For the first three to five years, we will focus on selling reclaimed lumber,” Law said. “After that, we will be able to decide if we continue in the timber business or go on to sell the technology.”

For Law, his short-term focus is clear. “We are taking material that today has no value and we are turning it into a product of high quality and value.”

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