Robot Architects Design & Build New Structures

I love architecture and interior design. In fact, I am working with a new hardware company that is currently manufacturing dynamic wallpaper.  Dumb homes are being replaced by smarter connected buildings, but what happens when the machines are the architects, designers, and contractors?

Earlier this week University of Stuttgart researchers created the first permanent building that was designed and built by robots. The team employed a robotic arm and custom software to build the 250-square-meter geodesic structure—a curvy shell composed of self-bracing panels—faster and with greater precision than could be accomplished with human hands alone.  And they did so while minimizing the project’s environmental impact.

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The result is a sinuous building called Landesgartenschau, or LaGa, Exhibition Hall in Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany. The hall is made out of 243 geometrically unique plates of 50-millimeter-thick beech plywood designed and cut using robotics. Humans then assembled the plates like puzzle pieces, fitting together 7,356 finger joints so that the resulting structure could stand without supports. “If you didn’t have the design, engineering and fabrication technology we assembled, you simply wouldn’t be able to build anything like this,” says LaGa team leader Achim Menges. “Proportionally, the timber shell is much thinner than an eggshell,” Menges notes. Whereas eggshells have a thickness-to-span ratio of 1 to 100, LaGa’s ratio is more than 1 to 200.

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This project marks the first time builders have employed robotics, which had been considered too inflexible for use in iconoclastic architecture, so extensively on a permanent building, says Johannes Baumann, co-founder of the Association for Robots in Architecture. In fact, automation was the enabling factor in LaGa’s eye-catching design as well as the speed and efficiency involved in assembling the structure.Team member Tobias Schwinn explains that the goal of the project was to create an exacting, lightweight structure that couldn’t be built without robotics and demonstrate that robotics can fashion a structure beyond human capability.The team wrote software, which generated the geometry of the hall and issued real-time alerts if it detected elements or processes that would make construction impossible. The Stuttgart tools worked within Grasshopper, a graphical algorithm editor that, in turn, worked within a three-dimensional modeling app called Rhinoceros.

Actual work on LaGa Hall began away from the construction site in January 2014. A Hundegger computer-aided manufacturing panel-cutter rough-cut each beech plate. Other computer-aided manufacturing tools cut insulation, waterproofing material and cladding. A seven-axis Kuka Robotics system was then delivered to the site to bevel and make the final cuts to the plates. The use of robotics on a construction site is unusual because the machines typically demand clean, structured surroundings, Menges says. In this case they were employed primarily to show that it could be done and to reduce vehicle use, cutting LaGa’s carbon footprint.

While the robots were the architects, it still required humans to do the manual labor, of assembling the shell on temporary scaffolding and driving screws through each finger joint took three weeks. Actual robotic construction should be the goal, Bock says, adding, “it’s like we have a horse carriage without the horse, but we have a turbocharged engine.” There’s a mismatch between what the design technology can do and what the technology could do, he concludes. Translation: we can design it, to build it we need thumb.



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