REVIEW | 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 upon to inform advanced 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.

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, which 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.

ROBOBLOX, Design Robotics & UQ School of Architecture
The Future of Manufacturing

With support from the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC), Design Robotics is collaborating to present a range of new fabrication and vision systems solutions. The goal is simple – to design for human intelligence and optimize the relationship between people and machines.

Pushing the limits of industrial robotics is a move to empower people. Navigating the increasing complexity of manufacturing inevitably supports human experience and enhances skills acquisition. At its heart, this approach celebrates the best of what robots and machines can achieve – problem-solving, and the best of what humans can do – social intelligence and contextual understanding.

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