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4 Experiments in Robot and Drone 3D Printing that Could Shape Architecture's Future

In manufacturing, the dramatic recent expansion in the capabilities of 3D printing has threatened to revolutionize the way that things are made. In architecture though, while 3D printing has been received with enthusiasm its translation to the increased scale of buildings has been challenging. Most solutions to this problem have focused on increasingly large printers and the incorporation of existing principles of prefabrication - however there is another way. In this article, originally published on Autodesk’s Line//Shape//Space publication as "4 Ways a Robot or Drone 3D Printer Will Change Architecture and Construction," Zach Mortice looks at four examples of cutting-edge research into 3D printing that utilize robots or drones to navigate architecture's challenging scale.

Buildings simply aren’t made like anything else—that goes for sunglasses, furniture, appliances, and fighter jets. No other production process brings massive amounts of material to one place, constructs one item, and then hauls away the garbage. The inefficiencies are monumental.

Modular construction has promised a great deal of potential to reduce waste. But what if one answer is to do more intricate construction on-site, not less? 3D printers attached to robots and drones are demonstrating that they might have the versatility to finally bring the unruly building process to heel.

This 3D Printed Pavilion Provides Shade During the Day and Illuminates at Night

The Solar Bytes pavilion, designed by assistant professor at Kent State University Brian Peters, is a temporary structure which highlights the potential of new techniques available to architecture: robotic arms, 3D printing, smart technologies such as lighting sensors, and solar energy.

Leveraging the strength and range of motion of a robotic arm, the pavilion was printed in three dimensions with an experimental extruder, resulting in a structure composed of 94 unique modules that capture energy during the day, and shine at night. After their initial function, the plastic modules making up the pavilion will be completely crushed and reused in a new structure.

Courtesy of Brian Peters Courtesy of Brian Peters Courtesy of Brian Peters Courtesy of Brian Peters

BIG and Heatherwick's Google HQ to be Built with Robots

Google's proposed California headquarters will be built with robots, according to the most recent planning documents received by the City of Mountain View Council. As the Architects' Journal reported first, the documents detail BIG and Heatherwick Studio's plan to construct the canopy-like structure's interiors with a team of robotic-crane hybrids known as "crabots."

These crabots would, in theory, establish a "'hackable' system for the building of the interior structures," says the documents, that would allow for limitless, easy, and affordable reconfiguration of space throughout the building's life. 

Skanska and Foster + Partners Collaborate on World’s First 3D Concrete Printing Robot

Global construction company Skanska is teaming up with Foster + Partners and the engineers at Loughborough University (LU) to create the world’s first commercial 3D concrete printing robot. The company has signed an agreement with LU, who has been working on the project since 2007, to partake in an 18-month initiative with a consortium of partners focused on developing a robot capable of printing complex structural components with concrete. 

A video about LU's research on 3D concrete printing and Foster + Partner's involvement, after the break.

MIT Develops Self-Assembling, Easy-Bake Robots

TERMES: A Robotic Swarm That Collectively Constructs Modular Structures

Termite mounds offer a fascinating architectural quandary: how is it possible that these towering structures (which include complex systems of openings, passages, large volumetric spaces, and even active ventilation systems and humidity regulation) are constructed with no centralised control or planning? The spatial complexity that these thousands of insects can collectively achieve has inspired a Harvard team to create TERMES, a project focused on programming an artificial robotic swarm to build modular structures.

Robots, Cars and Architecture

Since the dawn of the modern era, there has been a strong relationship between architecture and the car, especially in the works of Le Corbusier.

Le Corbusier was fascinated by his car (the Voisin C7 Lumineuse); the aesthetics of this functional, mass produced machine deeply influenced his designs. Its focus on function translated into his concept that houses should be "machines for living" and inspired a series of experiments of mass produced, pre-fab houses (such as the Maison Citrohan). Most of these concepts were later materialized in the iconic Villa Savoye, whose floorplan was even designed to accommodate the car's turning radius. 

Architecture by Robots, For Humanity

Architecture is quickly adopting the popular technology of robots. Although it is slightly hard to define what “robot” really means, for architecture, it tends to refer to anything from robot arms to CNC mills to 3D printers. Basically, they are programmable, mechanical, and automated instruments that assist in processes of digital fabrication.

So, what might robots mean for architecture? A more precise architecture which could contribute to a more sustainable building life cycle? More innovative design derived from algorithmic processes? A more efficient prefabrication process that could reduce the time and cost of construction?

Probably a mix of all three. But more importantly, what might robots mean for humans? Robotic replacement for the construction worker? Loss of local craftsmanship and construction knowledge? Maybe. But I might reformulate the question. Asking what robots mean for humans implies passivity.  

What I ask, then, is what can robots do for humans?

5 Robots Revolutionizing Architecture's Future

Robots fascinate us. Their ability to move and act autonomously is visually and intellectually seductive. We write about them, put them in movies, and watch them elevate menial tasks like turning a doorknob into an act of technological genius. For years, they have been employed by industrial manufacturers, but until recently, never quite considered seriously by architects. Sure, some architects might have let their imaginations wander, like Archigram did for their "Walking City", but not many thought to actually make architecture with robots. Now, in our age of digitalization, virtualization, and automation, the relationship between architects and robots seems to be blooming...check it out. 

Keep reading to see five new robots making architecture.

ETH Zurich: "Programmed Wall" Sci-Arc Robot House "Flight Assembled Architecture" KUKA/prc Grasshopper Plugin

Video: SCI-Arc Robot House

SCI-Arc‘s introduction of the Robot House (spring 2011) – a multifunctional robotics lab that enables the exploration of advanced fabrication techniques, manipulation of high tech materials, and numerous  methods for simulation – has brought about a new and intriguing component to the school. Designed by faculty members Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser, its primary goal is the advancement of next generation platforms for the experimentation and future speculation of architecture.