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Architectural robotics: what next?

Words:
Dan Cash

Complex forms, 3D printing and upscaling of novel techniques came under scrutiny at the latest Rob|Arch conference

Robotics must be one of the most futuristic sounding aspects of technology’s promise for architecture, and last month saw 400 academics and professionals gather in Switzerland to exchange their knowledge at the biennial Rob|Arch conference. This fourth outing for the event was hosted by ETH Zurich’s National Centre of Competence in Research Digital Fabrication (NCCR), which contributed on its own pioneering work on robotics in architecture, art and design – primarily driven by academics Matthias Kohler and Fabio Gramazio of Gromazio Kohler Research.

Half of the papers presented explored additive manufacturing (3D printing) of concrete in various guises. Although still in its infancy, it’s interesting to note that Sika, one of the event sponsors, now offers material products which can be printed at a rate of 200mm an hour. Academic research focussed on how to stretch additive technology to improve reliability, reduce tolerances and ensure consistency.

Additive printing still feels like a technology suitable for small-scale use such as replacing brickwork walls in single dwellings, as about to be demonstrated in Eindhoven, Holland. As Jonas Buchli, a robotics engineer now working with Deepmind, indicated, it’s important to see how these processes can be developed for large-scale deployment, where structural performance needs to be much higher than small projects require. Techniques as presented seemed targeted at the production of pavilions or prototypes, with the route towards scaling up unclear. 

But while scaling up these techniques for application in construction is challenging, a few promising examples were demonstrated. Buchli presented a method of using steel additive printing to build a cage which creates permanent formwork for concrete. On a similar theme, Odico formwork robotics is a NASDAQ listed company using robotic arms to cut formwork from industrial foams, which allows complex structural elements and reduces concrete use by up to 40% over conventional methods. Given obvious concerns around single-use plastic products this technique highlights the issue of foam reusability; but all the techniques presented are in their infancy, and development needs to continue to allow alternative materials to be investigated.

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Someone once said: ‘the history of architecture is defined by the history of techniques’ – and it’s clear that a digital fabrication aesthetic is beginning to emerge, often involving organic, double curvature and otherwise complex forms. Matthais Kohler made the prescient comment that there is a need take new technologies and focus on simplicity to make the most impact.

The conference concluded with a visit to the D-FAB (Digital FABrication) house by ETH, built to demonstrate its recent progress in technology including the wall by Buchli and other examples of offsite timber frames built by robot.

A paper from Chiba University, Japan, on the use of robotics to craft joinery for replacement components for historic buildings is worthy of mention, giving a wonderful insight into how automation can support craftsman rather than replace them.

An enduring memory of the event is what can happen when a group of people from diverse backgrounds collaborate. This wasn’t accidental given the conference’s working title of ‘Radical Cross Disciplinarity’, but if we continue to work in this manner and embrace the opportunities to innovate, it’s genuinely exciting to think of where the technology could take us.


Dan Cash is a building services engineer and senior lecturer at the University of the West of England

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