May 31, 2016      

Odense, Denmark, is home to many industry-leading robotics institutes and enterprises. Odico Formwork ApS is one of the companies that have emerged from this European robotics epicenter, and the construction robotics firm has already made a few waves internationally.

Established in 2012, Odico‘s vision from the start has been to revolutionize the concrete and architecture industries through the use of innovative software and robotics. The company’s technology has already been put to the test in both small and large construction projects.

Recently, Odico was hired by the contractor for late architect Zaha Hadid’s new Opus Tower in Dubai to produce the molds for the frames that support the curved windows of the building (see image above).

“Via an automated process, we made almost 2,500 unique polystyrene molds in just a few weeks,” said Anders Bundsgaard, managing director at Odico. “The constructor of the Opus building came to us, as everybody else had turned down the job, because it had to be completed in a very short time.”

“The fact that we are able to make molds for construction purposes this fast says something about the potential of our technology,” he said. “I have been told that it took a year to mill the advanced facade of the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I’m quite sure that we could have produced those molds in just about three weeks.”

How does it work?

The technology behind the hotwire cutting is patent-pending software that allows for geometrically challenging molds to be cut approximately 100 times faster than competing technologies, such as CNC (computerized numerical controlled) cutting and milling.

Clients’ 3D files and designs are realized by coordinated robotic movements, which cut advanced molds in expanded polystyrene. Odico has 12 robots with names like “The Hot One,” “The Long One,” and “The Colorful.”

Odico's construction robot

One of Odico’s robots hotwire cuts molding. Credit: Image copyright Odico Formworks.

These robots vary by function, such as a track-mounted robot that can reach 24 meters and a robot mounted on a pedestal that can work on pieces up to 5 meters tall.

“We have developed our technology with a combination of three elements: a third software, a third hardware, and a third insight into geometry and architecture,” said Bundsgaard. “The hardware we use is standard; we just teach the robot to do something new.”

“For molds used in construction, we usually cut into polystyrene because it’s cheap and recyclable. But we can cut anything from concrete, marble, wood, ice, rock wool — you name it!” he said. “We can also put a nozzle at the end of the robotic arm and make it spray paint or apply other coatings or treatments to a surface.”

From construction robotics research to startup

Odico was established in 2012. It all began one day when architect AsbjOrn SOndergaard called Bundsgaard and said, “I need a robot, can you help me?”

At the time, Bundsgaard was working for a robotics company, and he answered, “Yes, but you probably won’t be able to use it.”

SOndergaard said he replied: “I realize that, but I have a good friend down in Delft, Holland, who is researching ways of making industry robots move in new ways based on input from 3D drawings.”

That Dutch friend was Jelle Feringa, and today, the three of them are co-owners of Odico. They formed the company together after having held the first digital fabrication workshop ever in Denmark, at the School of Architecture in Aarhus.

“I went there a couple of weeks later to see what they had created, and I was absolutely astonished,” recalls Bundsgaard. “On the floor of the exhibition were the most amazing figures cut out by their early attempts at combining 3D CAD drawings with robot milling technology. I spontaneously asked why they weren’t selling it, and AsbjOrn said that they actually had tried, but….”

And that was the beginning of Odico. Bundsgaard quit his job and threw himself into a startup, which is now looking as if it’s about to take off.

A giant leap for infrastructure robotics

The building and construction industry has yet to really discover Odico’s robotic technology and take it to heart. But once it does, it will be a giant leap for the industry in terms of everything that matters — from production time and cost to the possibilities that open up to architects and developers.

“The advantages of our robotic technology are obvious. Today, concrete is cast in molds made from huge amounts of wood or steel, which takes ages to construct and which cannot be used again,” said Bundsgaard. “When we cut the molds in polystyrene, it literally takes no time. We can cut any shape really fast and at very low costs, plus it’s an environmentally sound option.”

“I’m convinced that it’s only a matter of a short time before we have our robots actually on construction-site churning out building blocks in all sorts of shapes at high-speed,” he added.

A game-changer for the construction industry

Odico’s technology opens the doors to an entirely new world, especially for architects who often see their great ideas and plans realized as boring compromises due to tight budgets and timeframes. In a lot of cases, architects end up not wanting to put their name to a finished building. But with Odico’s technology, one literally does not have to cut any corners.

“You can say, that at the moment, there are no real competitors to what we do. The technology we offer is a so-called game-changer,” Bundsgaard said. “The alternative is to keep doing what the industry is already doing — and in most cases that is to rationalize.”

“Great ideas are often complicated and expensive to actualize, so they end up never materializing,” he said. “Most new buildings are erected as compromises via a process of rationalization, which turns the finished building into something square and boring that looks like everything else.”

Odico’s robotic technology can be used in different ways in construction. It can cut the molds that are used for concrete shapes, or it can actually cut blocks of concrete into any desired shape. In both cases, production time is considerably shorter and the possibilities much wider than is seen today.

“We can make the production of unique elements just as efficient as if you made 10,000 copies of the same piece. That’s the real scoop of our technology,” said Bundsgaard. “In a way, this is how the new world embraces the old. We allow originality, which is traditionally the domain of craftsmen, into the world of automation.”

New possibilities for architects

To illustrate exactly that, Bundsgaard referred to a current building project in Vejle, Denmark, for Kirk Capital — owned by the Kirk family, which founded the Lego toy company. The architect behind it is world-famous light artist Olafur Eliasson, in cooperation with architect firm Lundgaard & Tranberg.

Odico's Anders Bundsgaard

Hotwire cutting could be a “game-changer,” says Odico Formwork’s Anders Bundsgaard.

The building consists of cylindrical towers “woven” into each other, alternating between convex and concave curves. When the constructor first saw the plans, they thought it was going to be an impossible task.

They made calculations of the costs of having their own woodworkers produce the concrete molds in plywood on frame timber and then chose to try out Odico’s solution with polystyrene molds cut out via their CAD/robotic technology.

“We produced the molds in our own backyard and sent 80 lorry loads off to the building site. Polystyrene blocks are lightweight and easy for the builders to shift, lift and mount,” Bundsgaard recalled. “Next step for us is that we make our technology available to construction workers on-site, so the molds can actually be cut out in the place where they are going to be used. This will save the cost of transport and make production a lot more flexible.”

What’s not to like?

Odico is the first company in the world to have developed software and robotics for industrial cutting of advanced molds in expanded polystyrene, Bundsgaard claimed. The technology is still maturing, so there may be some disadvantages compared with existing concrete construction methods.

In the case of the Vejle building, the constructor said that the polystyrene molds are easy to work with but are also vulnerable to impact from builders’ tools and metal rods.

And in the parts of the building where the concrete is going to be exposed and not clad in tiles, the builders have used traditional molds of wood or steel to achieve a completely even surface. But that wouldn’t have been necessary, according to Bundsgaard.

“It is possible to prepare the polystyrene molds to ensure smooth surface concrete,” he said. “We have developed a two-component coating, which our robots spray on to the elements. It dries in about 5 to 6 seconds and gives an absolutely smooth surface. It costs a bit more, but I still believe that it’s cheaper than building the molds in wood.”

A degree of precision

Another issue that Odico is dealing with when selling its product to the building industry is precision. Compared with CNC milling, the company’s robotic technology is not quite as precise. Where a CNC machine can cut to a thousand of a millimeter’s precision, a well-oiled robot can cut to two tenths of a millimeter.

“Our robots couldn’t cut elements to be used in an airplane engine, but in construction work where you operate with a tolerance of five centimeters, they are absolutely adequate,” Bundsgaard said. “Still, precision is actually one of the hurdles when we talk to constructors. They insist on the highest standard even if it’s not necessary.”

But maybe cost could be the factor that would make more people within the industry interested in trying out the new technology.

A CNC machine may start at $450,000, but the price of a track-mounted robot starts at about a tenth of that. And what you may be lacking in precision — if measurements below two tenths of a millimeter make a difference — you gain in cost and time.

Who will be first mover?

In spite of the obvious advantages of the new technology, the building industry has been very slow in adopting it. Nobody wants to be the first to take the risk of trying something new.

But perhaps the breakthrough for Odico is just around the corner, with the Vejle and Dubai cases to show for themselves and their robot assistants.

Odense Hosts RoboBusiness Europe 2016

Learn more about European robotics innovation and applications at RoboBusiness Europe 2016. This year’s conference has more than 100 exhibitors and speakers and runs from June 1 to 3 in Odense, Denmark.

Program highlights include astronaut Andreas Mogensen and professor Andre Schiele from the European Space Agency and Hiroshi Ishiguro, professor at Osaka University and developer of humanoid robots.

Other noteworthy speakers include Robert High, vice president and chief technology officer of IBM Watson; bestselling author Peter Fisk; and Henrik Christensen, and director at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. View the full program at