Using robots, Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, architects and professors at the ETH (Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule) in Zurich, push the limits of computer and digital fabrication in design and construction. The teaching and business partners research digital design and robotic fabrication in architecture. Instead of creating robotic objects and automated environments, the architects are using robots to build those products and environments.
The fabrication robots, called ROB Units, build structures by placing modular pieces of building materials such as brick or wood in preprogrammed patterns. Algorithms and parameters written by the architects feed the design of the structures. The results are intricately detailed and beautiful installations.
The advantages of employing robots in construction are precision and consistency, conditions normally vulnerable to the element of human error in construction. Combined with digital design programs, automated robots can manipulate materials into shapes and patterns that rely on exact replication and repetition.
Until recently the robots have been used to prefabricate the structures in controlled environments. In order to operate the robots directly in the construction sites, Gramazio and Kohler are developing ROB Units to cognitively adapt to construction tolerances and variations, and to correct course.
Among the first to explore robots in architectural design, Gramazio and Kohler have studied robotic fabrication since 2006. Their original research led to the creation of the ROB Facade, a structural brick wall system built by robotics. In 2007, the pair introduced the mobile ROB Unit, a fabrication robot housed in a freight container, intended to be used anywhere in the world.
The designers’ robot-built projects include the exterior envelope of a vineyard building in 2006, a temporary pavilion for the 2007 Westfest in Switzerland, and a public installation, Structural Oscillations, for the 2008 International Architecture Biennale in Venice. In 2009, the architects created Pike Loop in New York, the first installation to be built on site by a ROB Unit. The 72 foot long structure contained more than 7000 bricks forming a complex infinite loop.
Gramazio and Kohler are also investigating the potential for robots to make design decisions while building. The architects exhibited examples of the next generation of their fabricating robots this year in London and Switzerland. Using scanning equipment (to measure materials and progress) and a feedback loop, the ROB Unit deduced the next logical step in an architectural assembly, instead of just following a prescribed pattern. The scanning technology also allowed the ROB Unit to react and adjust to deviations in real time.
Using robots as tools for design and building opens up possibilities beyond small structures and impressive installations. With improved mobility, the robots could be used alongside traditional–human–builders to not only construct new buildings but also safely and precisely retrofit existing buildings.