There’s an outdoor building that holds wine in a field in Fläsch, Switzerland, that was built using robots and algorithms. Each one of its 20,000 bricks was laid at a precise angle and interval – by a robot arm. One hour away, in the town of Pfungen, the twisting brick facade of an office building has the same algorithmic origins. These are arguably the world’s first digital constructions in which computer designs have become a large-scale structural reality thanks to automated machine labour.
The building and the office were built by ROB Technologies, a company spun out from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich by architect-cum-roboticist Tobias Bonwetsch. ROB has developed a mobile robotic construction platform (shown in photo) which can be wheeled to any construction site, where it spits out customized brickwork. The bricks are laid according to any design chosen in the customized software which underpins the system. A robotic arm made by Kuka Robotics based in Augsburg, Germany, grabs each brick off a slide, daubs it with sticky epoxy resin and lays it with superhuman precision. The robot means designers can experiment with mathematically complex designs, knowing that every brick will be effortlessly, perfectly placed.
Swiss construction company Keller has given ROB more than half a million Swiss francs ($540,000) to develop its bricklaying robot. Upcoming projects include a robot-built wooden slat ceiling and a 3500-square-metre brick facade – Bonwetsch’s biggest project yet. A robot that could handle the tiling of a whole room with the same level of autonomy as a Roomba vacuum cleaner is also on the list.
Meanwhile, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, robo-arms and design software are being unleashed to create a whole house. Steven Keating at the MIT Media Lab took delivery of a truck with a 15-meter-long boom-arm last week. That vehicle is now being transformed into a giant robotic print head, capable of 3D-printing building-sized versions of the curvaceous mini-structures that festoon Keating’s office. “No one has ever built a robotic arm this large,” he claims. “Our end goal is a digital construction vehicle which would allow what we call print-in-place construction.” In other words, a system that can drive onto a construction site and automatically print a completely unique building directly from digital designs.
While Bonwetsch has succeeded in bringing digital construction to an industry niche, Keating is aiming to revolutionise the way we build.
Source (story and pictures): Hal Hodson, New Scientist