June 06, 2014      

A research project lauded at Rob|Arch 2014 architectural-robotics conference demonstrates how automation is likely to change building design.

The conference, which showcased papers about innovative robotics software, hardware and techniques, also raised the curtain on Landesgartenschau (LAGA) Exhibition Hall in Schwabisch Gmund, Germany, which is the first permanent structure significantly designed and built with the aid of robotics.

This isn’t the only such project in the industry, either. RBR50 company ABB Robotics is working with schools in Europe and the United States that involve the integration of robotics and building design.

The state of the art in construction robotics today is tele-operated machinery. And while prefabrication of standard features like walls and trusses is common, it requires transporting assembled pieces from assembly facilities to building sites, which increases carbon footprints and creates a lag between when a mistake is made and when it is discovered.

Robotics Can Make Fantastical Designs Reality

University of Stuttgart faculty and staff, with the support of several automation firms, wanted to make a striking but aesthetically pleasing hall of such complexity that it could only be built with the help of robotics. The message to the industry is that robotics is ready and can make even seemingly fantastical designs reality.

The result is a flowing geodesic structure made out of 243 geometrically unique plates of beech plywood with sub-millimeter tolerances. A seven-axis system from RBR50 company Kuka Robotics beveled each of the plates’ 7,356 finger joints, which give LaGa its rigidity without supports. (Kuka Roboter GmbH gave financial support to the team.)

Waterproofing, insulating and cladding materials were cut by separate computer-aided-manufacturing and numerical-control systems.

Robotic fabrication of a beech plywood plate using the seven-axis system from KUKA

The timber shell was assembled in three weeks, a short time for a structure of LaGa’s size and intricacy.

Being a geodesic structure, it innately used less wood than a comparable traditional building. Twelve cubic meters of wood encloses 600 cubic meters of space. But robotics delivered yet more savings. There was no rework, making the hall easier on resources and the budget.

Using Enhanced Robotics

Johannes Braumann, co-founder of the Association for Robotics in Architecture, says to date, automation has largely bypassed building design and fabrication. Software has been used to plan, manage and complete projects (namely, building information modeling (BIM) apps), but that has not delivered the degree of data granularity or systems integration needed to help produce a structure like LaGa, he says.

At the same time, robotics have been chained to factories. The Stuttgart team had the Kuka robotic arm delivered to the wood-products company that performed all the rough cuts on the 50-mm-thick plates. One of the project’s aims was to minimize the transportation of materials to reduce LaGa’s carbon footprint.

That is a significant move in that fabrication robotics today, almost by definition, work bolted to the concrete in specially prepared, highly structured settings.

Photos: Inside the Construction of LaGa Exhibition Hall

Perhaps more significant, the researchers worked with custom and existing software that tied together design applications that offered real-time feedback, interoperated with other applications and wrote code for the robotics hardware.

The researchers wrote tools that interfaced with Grasshopper, a graphical algorithm editor that, in turn, worked within a three-dimension modeling app called Rhinoceros.

How Robotics Will Impact Construction Industry

Unlike many architectural demonstration projects, which can be esoteric, LaGa’s impact could become apparent in the near future with the “further vertical densification of cities,” says Achim Menges, director of Stuttgart University’s Institute of Computational Design and LaGa team leader.

“That is going to translate into irregular (building) shapes – building in gaps between buildings and on the tops of buildings,” Menges says. And lumber use is going to have to be more sustainable.

Dan Meis, director of sports architecture for architect firm Woods Bagot and a stadium designer (including the Staples Center in Los Angeles), sees another advantage of robotics-assisted design and construction.

Time works against designers of sports arena in ways it does not for, say, those who plan commercial buildings, says Meis. A typical building opening usually has a somewhat elastic deadline. While legions of office workers don’t stand on the sidewalk with their chairs and computers waiting for the doors to open, Meis says, a delay in opening a sports venue is hard and fast. Fans can buy tickets to a game in a stadium, so the structure must be ready in time for ticket-takers to admit people.

Although he was not involved in the project or the conference, he says robotics likely will make his industry and its buildings more efficient.

Frank-Peter Kirgis, a group vice president for ABB, says LaGa and efforts his company is working on with universities is likely to have significant impacts on both architecture and robotics. Manufacturers and users of robotics need to rethink what the systems can do, Kirgis says, and designers need to know how robotics can aid in their creative efforts.

“Complex structures can be built when you manufacture individual parts,” he says. “Combining the architect’s creativity with the flexibility of robots enables the building of unique structures in an affordable manner.”