Automating Busywork’
Photo courtesy of REX Engineering Group

Automating Busywork

By Tad Vezner

Steven Uecke (AE ’07) will make you feel like you haven’t been working hard enough—though when he reflects on his ideas he sometimes claims the opposite, saying they sprout from a desire to be lazy.

Or at least to have less busywork.

After founding his first company in his 20s (not counting the successful landscaping business that he and his brother founded in their teens), Uecke, at age 37, now owns three companies in the construction industry. He was recently named one of ENR Midwest’s 2023 Top Young Pros for the quick ascent of his career trajectory.

But it’s his latest company that seems to excite him most: it branches into robotics and artificial intelligence in order to create humanoid robots to assist on construction sites and elsewhere.

“The thing that drives me personally is automating work. Maybe it’s a form of laziness,” he laughs. “That’s what excites me, and that’s kind of carried through all these different companies.”

A Prolific Founder

To call Uecke lazy seems to contrast starkly with his track record.

Homeschooled in Winfield, Illinois, Uecke started early in business by rehabbing and flipping houses with his father, who also owned an accounting firm. They would do a single home at a time, but it was enough to whet Uecke’s appetite for working in the construction industry.

“I wanted to be a home builder, but our dad encouraged us [Uecke and his brother] to get a degree in something even if we did,” Uecke says.

When it came time to apply for college, Uecke debated architecture or engineering; seeing himself as more analytical than artistic, he chose engineering.

After graduating from Illinois Institute of Technology, Uecke worked for Robert Johnson & Associates, a small structural engineering firm in Wheaton, Illinois. He then transferred to Johnson Wilber Adams, where he managed the majority of the firm’s connection and miscellaneous steel design projects, more than 650 in all, including some where he also served as project engineer.

He found creative ways to manage the work, specifically the busywork. In the evenings—building on some Illinois Tech coding courses—Uecke developed a software application to automate the uninspiring aspects of his job.

He enjoyed the work, but when his wife had to move to Wisconsin to finish her schooling, Uecke decided it was time to branch out on his own. His first company, RexConn Design LTD, was started in 2012 with a desk and phone in his Wisconsin apartment. RexConn was a structural engineering firm that specialized in designing steel connections and stairs for steel fabricators and detailers.

Like any startup, finding initial customers was tough. He didn’t have a non-compete agreement with Johnson Wilber Adams, but agreed not to reach out to former clients. The company, in turn, said it was OK if clients reached out to him.

“But they had to find me,” Uecke says. “This was before social media. At that point it wasn’t the easiest thing.”

His first job was as a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a general contractor of a tiny portion of Freedom Tower in New York. Gradually, work picked up, and by the time Uecke and his wife left Wisconsin, his business had a half dozen employees. He also acquired another business, a software company called Descon Plus, which specialized in structural steel connection engineering software.

“It was basically the software I was using,” Uecke says. “At the time, I didn’t have the money to spend on the software. And I was competing in the transaction with other multi million-dollar established companies.”

Still, the company had its headaches: There hadn’t been any updates to the software’s code base in years, and Microsoft would soon end support for it.

“I got myself in way over my head,” Uecke laughs. He did an initial update himself, then hired people to do a full rebuild.

There were many brands over the years, but the next major milestone occurred in 2017, when Uecke purchased a Los Angeles engineering firm, later changed to REX Engineering Group, which housed all of his companies’ engineering services for commercial, institutional, and some high-end residential buildings.

The employee headcount hit 20, revenues hit seven figures, and some Canadian clients made it an international company.

His second business, REX Construction Services, is a commercial general contractor with projects ranging from multi-family residential buildings to adaptive-use offices to large distribution centers. His third, REX Technology Solutions, focuses on new technologies.

Recently, Uecke decided to ramp up his investment in that third area—in a big way.

“I wanted to build a product that you could hold in your hand, something tangible. Everything with services is digital. I just kind of thought about, ‘What are the technologies I’m interested in, and what might be a good opportunity?’” Uecke says.

He was interested in robotics. He had tried exploring the field himself, starting in 2018, but “back then we didn’t know what jobs we were trying to help.”

The New Automation

In May 2022 Uecke purchased SuperDroid Robots, a North Carolina-based robotics manufacturer. The company provided robots that could do remote inspections: The robots are essentially mobile cameras with a couple of tools attached, and they are used by SWAT and HAZMAT teams to go into hazardous environments and do simple things like open doors.

Uecke wants to expand upon that, creating a “humanoid platform” to tackle more strenuous jobs.

“The big issue with construction is labor shortage. The simplest way to assist with labor shortage is to have a robot that’s similar to a human, and can navigate the construction site like a human,” he says.

He has already gotten requests from companies wanting specific automations, often in environments where human labor is risky or dangerous. He’s working on a low-maintenance platform that he’d offer on a subscription basis, rather than having companies buy the units outright.

“The possibilities are limitless, but the applications that are simple are sufficient,” Uecke says. A “robotic eye,” for instance, can patrol a worksite at night to safeguard against theft or vandalism, opening and closing gates and flipping switches.

“It’s not hard, but in order to cover a large area, it costs a lot of money to have a person do it,” Uecke says.

And yes, he’d like to incorporate AI into the build. With safeguards, he’s quick to add.

“No first contact with humans. A robot or something that it’s holding cannot make contact with a person. It would have to be contacted by that entity,” he says.

And like his early company days writing a program to help with busywork, Uecke sees the elimination of simple tasks as a net benefit, not just for him but for society as a whole.

“With robotics specifically, we have an opportunity to make a positive impact on the world,” he says. “A lot of people would rather operate a computer than a drill press. It’s about letting people do what they want to do.”