The most recent technological shift in the lineage of architectural innovations is here, but it is more than a new tool for realizing old architecture. 6-Axis robot arms are creating a new way to construct forms that were once thought of as merely digital experiments.
Integrating the (6-axis) robot into the construction industry requires a rethinking of the way architects and contractors interact. Design and fabrication can no longer be considered separate endeavors. The process of Design > Draw > Build is being replaced with a completely digital to physical workflow, in which a toolpath is exported, rather than a set of drawings. The next step in this transformation is the convergence of the technology into a seamless flow from designer to built form. Instead of the computer simply being used to represent the ideas of an architect and print them for a contractor to read, the architect will output the robot’s construction commands directly from the design. This avoids many of the conflicts inherent in today’s construction process where interpretation of drawings is necessary.
With Computer Aided Design and Computer Aided Manufacturing, longer processes of design and manufacturing were automated with the help of the computer. The latest digital tools don't aid the designer, they work alongside the designer, helping test solutions that wouldn't have been conceivable through mere intuition. These software tools such as Autodesk's Dreamcatcher test the fitness of design traits within an array of possible outcomes, helping the designer sift through potentially millions of iterations. This is not the future, but the current state of design computation. Software such as Galapagos for Grasshopper3D are considered evolutionary solvers, capable of finding the most optimum solution given a set of criteria. This is the current environment into which robots are integrating.
Robots are not merely the next laser cutter or 3D Printer. They are open-ended tools with endless application and configuration possibility. Unlike the traditional 3D printer that has a pre-defined build volume and a specific means of depositing material, robots offer an unprecedented amount of freedom. The customization of the end-arm tool for the robot allows for virtually any production method to be attached to the robot. A router, plastic extruder, welding gun, and gripper claw can all be mounted onto the end of the robot and controlled with a level of precision not yet seen in the construction industry. And when the robot is attached to a gantry, track, or mobile kart, the build volume is virtually unrestricted. The Architecture schools at Tongji University in Shanghai, and the ETH Zurich have each built robotic gantries on which robots are attached, extending the build volume of the robots to the size of the room they inhabit.
Tongji University is currently completing construction of a two-robot gantry portal in which two robots are attached to vertical members to move in the Z-direction, and can slide along a track in the Y-axis and along an elevated rail in the X-axis. This apparatus is being designed with the intention of architectural innovation, not traditional manufacturing. The same can be said for ERNE in Zurich, Switzerland, where a 164 foot long gantry system is being used to construct the undulating roof truss of the Institute of Technology (ITA) at ETH, Zurich. It has a build volume of 157' L x 18' W x 5' H. The robots are capable of cutting, welding, milling, screwing, nailing, lifting, bonding, and much more. At this scale, a robot can have total control of a site, moving members and assembling in swift, precise movements. Rather than adopting these robots to current construction methods, new opportunities for construction methods should be explored to take advantage of the technology.
The invention of steel transformed not only the way we build, but what we build. In the same way, robots in architecture will transform not just the process of constructing buildings, but the forms themselves. Branch Technology is one of many companies using robots to fabricate new architecture in new ways. They have created a way to 3D print carbon-fiber reinforced plastic with a robot, creating lattices of wall structures, inspired by nature’s reduction of material. These lattices form the core of the wall system they are producing and currently marketing. When insulation foam is sprayed within the matrix to prevent buckling, a 1.7 lb block of their lattice was able to support 6,000 lbs of weight without failure.
ConXtech is another company that uses robots to fabricate a new kind of structural system. Realizing that they could save time and increase precision if steel moment frames were fabricated in the shop rather than the field, they turned to robots. Welding is done in the factory, then using a simple dove-tail joint, they are fit together on-site, rapidly reducing the time required for typical steel erection. They implemented a “Robot Cell” in which collar connections are robotically welded, then beams and columns interlock and get bolted on-site. ConXtech is able to achieve levels of precision closer to those of the auto industry. Tighter tolerances will be one trait of the next generation of robotically-fabricated architecture.
Achim Menges from the University of Stuttgart in Germany has built a number of pavilions using robots in ways foreign to building construction, but reminiscent of construction found in nature. His design of the ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion 2014-15 takes inspiration from the way a water spider uses an air bubble to construct its habitat around itself. This pavilion starts with inflating a pneumatic pillow. A robot placed in the center then lays and hardens strands of Carbon fiber and resin along the inside, creating a hardened shell when the pillow is deflated. The pavilion size and shape are therefore a resultant of the robot’s work area, demonstrating the new forms emerging out of robotic construction. This design was not simply a translation from 3D to the built world, it required a constant feedback loop, measuring its environment to accommodate for deflections in the pillow due to air pressure that were unanticipated in the digital file.
The robot was not built for architecture, but its appropriation into the field is a sign of a larger phenomenon. Society is starting to test the limits of automation and move beyond it into the realms of the augmented human. Robotics and software advancements are making this a reality that we won't be able to ignore for much longer.