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Studies show that tool misplacement costs construction workers a significant amount of time each day. The AutoTool was created to alleviate this problem. | Video: Courtesy of Mason Kleinecke, Yan Yao, Harrison Vickers, Sophie Tullos, Kyler Christian and Hannah Wang

Construction workers have an abundance of responsibilities, from paving roads to building lasting structures. Having the right tools on hand is essential for completing work promptly but is a more challenging task than one might think. Studies show that construction workers spend a significant amount of their day chasing down tools, which increases labor costs and construction time.

A team of students from the J. Mike Walker '66 Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University decided to use their Senior Capstone Design Experience to address this issue. For their project, the team developed the AutoTool — an automated tool storage robot designed to navigate construction sites and identify tools.

The team consists of Mason Kleinecke, Yan Yao, Harrison Vickers, Sophie Tullos, Kyler Christian and Hannah Wang.

"The AutoTool is meant to increase labor productivity on construction sites," said Yao. "On a busy site, it can be easy to misplace tools, and many construction workers must go back and forth to a central location to retrieve the essentials for a project, wasting valuable time."

The team realized the need for their product in the industry and submitted their creation to the 2021 TiM$10K LiDAR challenge hosted by SICK Sensor Intelligence and came out victorious, taking home the grand prize of $10,000.  

The AutoTool is a mobile robot toolbox equipped with a camera capable of scanning QR codes. A QR code is placed on a construction worker's vest. Once the camera detects and scans the QR code, the AutoTool is designed to follow the worker. The robot is also equipped with a 2D LiDAR sensor that helps the robot navigate environments and steer around obstacles.

"The goal of these functions is reducing the idle time that's spent per worker per day searching for tools they need," said Wang. "This is the critical objective of the project."

The tools themselves will be marked with radio-frequency identification tags (RFID). The RFID sensor on the AutoTool constantly emits a signal to interact with the tags. When a tag (or tool) is not on board, the AutoTool registers the tool is missing and emits a blinking red light to notify the worker.  

"The RFID is similar to the security tags a cashier takes off at the counter while shopping," said Yao. "The radio-frequency sensor plays a key role in this because if the tagged tool is not in the toolbox, it can reduce downtime when locating the tool."

Although the product remains a proof-of-concept prototype, the team has learned valuable lessons about working with industry professionals and creating products for market.

"Through this seven-month project, we have learned how to develop products to hopefully change the construction industry or build technology that will improve society," said Kleinecke. "We hope to use what we've learned in real-life applications for future projects and ideas."

Dr. Joanna Tsenn, assistant professor of instruction and coordinator for the senior capstone design projects, is happy about the team's accomplishments and would like to see more teams take their projects outside the classroom.

“I’m thrilled for the team and what they achieved,” said Tsenn. “It was wonderful to see them go from identifying an initial problem to developing a solution that will have a real-world impact outside the classroom. Their success is well-deserved.”