Architectural Robotics

Over the past 15 years, researchers in architecture and construction have been exploring the possibilities of employing industrial robotic arms (IRA) to help create new kinds of architectural forms. There is now a wealth of research in this area that manufacturers can draw on to inform new robotic manufacturing processes, due to the power that they entail in the direct path from digital design to fabrication. For architects, designers and construction managers, this research also points the way to new design possibilities.

In the scope of this training material, examples from current architectural and design research are explored. Recent publications from ROBArchCuminCAD and prominent universities were analysed to identify key design methodologies. The key findings of the literature review show that there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way fabrication is thought, as the design methods used in the early exploratory stages directly correlates with the way the industrial robots function and manufacture.

Carving and 3D Printing IRA's, image courtesy of UAP.
Carving and 3D Printing IRA’s, image courtesy of UAP.

With the use of IRAs in architecture, designers have the possibility to fabricate their designs directly from the parametric digital design tools that they use. This direct connection between design and fabrication creates a fundamental shift in the way we perceive design, as architects. Suddenly, we are in control of the whole process of making; from material behaviour to structural rigidity, from material optimization to cost effectiveness, from sustainability to innovative techniques. Similar to the idea of sketching, the making process becomes more iterative, fluid and directly connected to our minds. It is also more playful and unique to our personal experiences (erlebnis).

Some of the design methodologies that arise from the exploration of IRA’s usage in architectural fabrications can be named as drawing, folding, 3D printing, deforming, stacking, weaving and carving. One might understand that each one of these methodologies are related to words of action, as they entail making in their existence. Most of the examples that are discussed in this section are pioneering exemplars that open up novel ways of making. Still at their early stages of exploration, these exemplars will change the way of architectural fabrication.

3D Printing

3D Printing technologies have been available to architects since the early 90’s, however, they are confined with the dimensions, the limitations and the available materials of the 3D Printers. With the use of IRAs, the possibilities of printing bigger and customised solutions became possible. Depending on the material used for printing, the outcomes could be real-time constructed structures without curing / assembling times. Also explorations into customised materials with sustainability considerations can be tested. Materials like recycled plastics, acrylic, nylon, resin, wood metal, rubber, salt, cement, sand, etc… can be used for 3D printing possibilities.

In the work of “Aggregation” by ICD, the concept of 3D printing is explored through a different kind of material compared to current 3D printing material. Instead of using a filament, this project uses a 3D elemental piece to be poured by an IRA. Through gravitational force, the material entangles to one another through a natural flow and compresses naturally. This process creates new ways of constructing through an aggregation process. There are no binders, no curing times. Allowing structure to emerge instantaneously through the process of pouring.

In the work of “Robotic Welding the Bridge” by MX3D, IRAs demonstrate the ability to 3D print in stainless steel. 3D printing is achieved by welding IREs. Welded forms have a lot of flexibility in relation to creating complex geometries and force distribution. More explorations with fluid materials that are more similar to 3D printers as we know it are the works of Roland SnooksEmerging Objects and AI Build.

Deforming

Deforming a rigid material using material’s physical properties creates novel
uses of that material. In architecture, deforming through vacuum forming has
been used for creating repetitive elements through metal and plastic sheets
moulds in many design projects. However, the idea of mass-customisation
through parametric design suggests novel techniques for fabrication with this
technique. As, custom designed panels require custom moulds, cost and
precision becomes the main concerns for manufacturers. In order for custom
moulds to be sustainable and economically feasible, manufacturing speed,
recycling and accuracy should be taken into consideration. With their speed
and precision, IRAs can apply adequate force to create exact deformations in
metal sheets to achieve high quality results. [Kalo, A. & Newsum, M. J.
(2014)
]

Folding

The folding techniques used in architecture are mainly influenced by the
folding techniques from Japanese Origami art. In the Origami technique, a
planar paper surface is folded into 3dimensional geometries without losing
material. The folds create rigidity in the material in a way that it is
possible to resist gravitational forces as well as lateral forces. Similar
ideas of Origami are tested and prototyped in the manufacturing process of
Robofold.
In the explorations of Robofold, laser cut aluminium plates that
have scores of folding as well as joint holes, are folded by three IREs
applying equal forces.

Stacking

Stacking materials is a repetitive and tiring process that requires
optimisation, attention, precision and equal force distribution. The
significance in the process of stacking is in the overall algorithm that
defines the rules of stacking in relation to each piece with one another, that
requires real-time feedback loops, using vision sensors. In architectural
fabrication, stacking materials by using pick and place functions in IRAs is
commonly used. Pioneering research group,
Gramazio Kohler
explore the potential of such technologies through onsite robotic construction.

Mobile Robotic Brickwork from robotsinarchitecture on Vimeo.

Weaving

Inherent in our nomadic existence, weaving has been an integral part of
architectural fabrication. Roof structures, partition elements have been woven
using various materials since centuries. However, today with the use of IRAs
in digital design to fabrication, architects realized a new potential in this
way of fabrication. In the works of
ICD
, New materials such as carbon fibre
have initiated unforeseen potentials in the making of spaces, using biomimetic
approaches to design. Parasitic structures as well as self-standing
lightweight structures enable fast and clean on-site fabrication of
lightweight structures. Either constructed as elemental units, or parasitical
structures that are weaved into localities, weaved elements create their own
structural integrity, allowing adequate weight distribution and optimised
material use. Some weaved structures allow human-robot collaboration by humans
assembling infrastructures for robots to weave, or humans assembling
robotically weaved elements into whole structures.

ICD ITKE Research Pavilion 2013-14 from itke on Vimeo.

Carving

Carving has entered the world of architectural fabrication with 3 axis CNC’s.
The flexibility of having a 6 axis IRA, allows multiple directional carving
into materials. With the use of IRAs, using different end effectors,
architects carve into materials with hotwire cutters as well as various
milling tools. Using a hotwire cutter, QUT Design Robotics team has
collaborated with UQ School of Architecture to create
ROBOBLOX
; a web to
fabrication design process to cut custom designed patterns into sculptural
friezes. Manufacturing company
UAP
uses robotic milling in creating custom
mould patterns for bronze casting of bespoke artworks.