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Rob|Arch is a conference run by The Association for Robots in Architecture. This year the conference took place in Ann Arbor, MI and was preceded by workshops run at various institutions around the world. The use of industrial robots is fairly new to the field. Researchers are still exploring ways to use these exciting tools to improve the design and development process of new structures. The conference explores both fabrication and how users interact with robots.

Tracking motion - Bot & Dolly

Tracking and recording motion of a user.

Bot & Dolly ran a workshop entitled “Craft Class 4 Robots“. The goal was to teach a robot a craft, something only humans can normally do, and then alter it (resize, translate, change colors, change speed) in the digital world. In the photo above you can see a user holding a paint brush that has IR lights attached. The lights are tracked by sensors placed around the room and data is recorded when the paintbrush moves. The recorded data is down sampled and smoothed using a custom Grasshopper script. The reduced data can then be used to have the robots duplicate the motion. To account for the offset of the various paintbrush sizes, special holders were created that have a known offset. The paintbrushes can be inserted into these holders and the robot then knows exactly where the tip of each brush is.

Users can also modify the recorded human motion data in software and have the robot arms perform the new motions. The end goal of the workshop was to create a library of human motion (paint brush strokes) that could be shared among users and used to produce art.

An image created by a robot painting

Image created by robot at the Bot & Dolly workshop.

The Sense-It 6 Axis workshop focused on using sensor feedback to alter the digital fabrication tool path. The designer programs the robot to follow a path. Because the robot arms are outfitted with sensors, a user can also tell the robot how to respond to changes in the environment in real time. Since the path of the robot then isn’t fully known until producing the part, the production process can be referred to as “Just In Time” manufacturing.

Robot manipulates a form that another robot controlled extruder will deposit plastic onto.

Robot manipulates a form that another robot controlled extruder will deposit plastic onto.

During the workshop, sensors for temperature and pressure were read using an Arduino. The Arduino was used to feed data back into the robot arm IO controller and ultimately used to alter the robots path. One of the benefits to this design and manufacturing process is that parts that might normally be scraped due to a defect, can be saved. Since the design and tolerance of not just this part, but parts it interacts with are now known, unproduced parts can be modified to accommodate the new tolerances. Usually architects must design without knowledge of the parts or their construction in the field. Known tolerances of each piece also allow for an overall tighter tolerance in the entire structure. In this workshop one of the robots was outfitted with an extruder and the other was used to manipulate a form or the work piece as the extrusion progressed.

An extruder deposited material onto known shapes being manipulated in space by both user control and sensor feedback.

An extruder deposited material onto known shapes being manipulated in space by both user control and sensor feedback.

The conference portion of Rob|Arch was filled with new ideas on usage for robotic manufacturing and also new types of tooling for robotic arms. A talk entitled “Detached fabrication processes for non-uniform solids”, discussed using disconnected tools for shaping work pieces. The author discussed heating a ball bearing and dropping it into foam at a known temperature. A robotic arm manipulated the foam and caused the melt of the foam by the ball bearing to change direction and speed. The melting speed in this material was known at specific temperatures but since the foam had an unknown material density and consistency at various points, planning for the ball bearing path was compared to working with Dynamite. Some parts of the end result could be controlled for, but not everything. The ball bearing ultimately would carve out a unique internal path through the foam. An Arduino was used for temperature control when pre-heating the ball bearing.

A presentation entitled “Design of Robotically Fabricated High Rises: Integrating robotic fabrication in a design studio” discussed using robots to help assemble models of buildings an an accurate and fast manner. The robot arms were used to bend and cut paper as needed for the model, glue the paper, and hold the paper in a precise position fora specified amount of time. The robot used for this was equipped with a pressure sensor so that parts were held at a proper pressure while the glue dried.

“D-FORM: Exploring the combination of laser cutting and robotic thermoforming as a technique for architectural envelopes” utilized a laser cutter and heat gun to produce decorative paneling and shades. The laser cutter was used to remove portions of plastic in a work piece and cut slits in it. Afterward the work piece was heated by a robot arm controlling a heat gun and deformed by another arm manipulating a tool head which would deform the heated plastic.

Since many of the workshops took place at other locations around the world, the results were transported and displayed in a gallery on the final day of Rob|Arch.

Robot arms deforming a rubber work piece

Robot arms deforming a rubber work piece

Plastic pellets joined together using a robot controlled heat source.

Plastic pellets joined together using a robot controlled heat source.

In addition to the impressive projects on display at the gallery, a robot was setup to assist the bartender in mixing drinks. Probably a bit overkill, but still a ton of fun to watch!

When architecture is mentioned, robots are not usually something people would think to associate with it. This part of the field is rather new and just starting to grow. We still don’t know how to scale all of these processes for both for size and quantity. It most likely isn’t feasible to build an arm large enough to construct an entire building. Have ideas? Share them with us in the comments below!

Tyler Worman

I’m a maker living in Ann Arbor, MI! I enjoy listening to music, playing disc golf, and experimenting with rapid prototyping tools.


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