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ETH Zurich is researching the future of construction with ABB robots

ETH Zurich is opening a robotics laboratory that is unique in the world, in which it is tested how future architectural projects can be implemented in a resource-efficient, low-emission and dense manner.

ETH Zurich opened a new building on September 22nd to research how digitization and automation could shape the construction sector: The Arch_Tec_Lab. Anyone who enters the building involuntarily looks up at the artistically corrugated wooden roof, which was made from thousands of wooden slats with the help of a robot. A fascinating sight.

The wooden roof of the Arch_Tec_Lab made by robots. © Andrea Diglas, ITA/Arch-Tec-Lab AG, ETH Zurich 2016 Under the roof: a two-story gallery with light-flooded offices. In it, architectural researchers are currently designing the future of building, which is being brought into the present in the laboratory on the ground floor of the new building. The Robotic Fabrication Laboratory, RFL for short, is a robotics laboratory that is unique in the world, in which four ABB robots are suspended from a ceiling-mounted Güdel area portal. The installation has a total of 36 system axes, with the help of which objects can be placed anywhere in the 45 x 17 x 6 meter space with an accuracy of half a millimeter. The ABB controller can control all axes – a world record, the project team assumes.

ABB, as the sponsor of the four robots and their controls, is significantly involved in the project. "The RFL shows ABB's competence in the field of robotics: As a partner of one of the most important architecture faculties in the world, ABB is committed to knowledge transfer between research and industry," says Frank-Peter Kirgis, Global Business Line Manager at ABB.

The RFL under construction: Assembling an ABB robot © Gramazio Kohler Research ETH Zurich 2016 "With the RFL we are taking an important step towards a digital building culture," says Professor Matthias Kohler, who, together with Professor Fabio Gramazio, heads one of the eight professorships at the Institute for Technology in Architecture who realized the Arch_Tec_Lab together. Tobias Bonwetsch, project manager, who has been in charge of the RFL since the beginning of the project in 2010, adds: "In this laboratory we will sound out the future of construction." An exciting challenge in view of the unique possibility of creating two-story objects on a scale of 1:1 in a laboratory to be able to produce.

The Robotic Fabrication Laboratory © Andrea Diglas, ITA/Arch-Tec-Lab AG, ETH Zurich 2016 What does it look like, the future of construction? Digitization and automation are also on the rise in the construction industry. Although slower than in other sectors, it is unstoppable. Building will be more digital, modular and automated in the future. The idea behind this is that a closed, digital chain links all the steps in the construction process - from design to construction. And thanks to robots, there are a multitude of new design forms and functionalities for architects. In this way, robots close a "fabrication gap" in the construction sector - which means filling in the gap between design and reality, between plan and feasibility. The architect plans what can be implemented. The robot builds what is planned.

Installation of the wooden roof © Arch_Tec_Lab 2015, A clear explanation of how robots can be used in the construction industry is offered by comparing them with the three-dimensional printing process. Just like 3D printers, robots in construction can give an object a certain shape during the creation process and thus determine its functionality. The only thing is that the robot doesn't work with ink, but with wooden slats or bricks, for example. This results in forms and constructs that can be manufactured by human hands, but would be extremely complex. A module of the curved roof of the Arch_Tec_Lab, for example, can be nailed together by a robot in around 10 hours. Humans would need more than 100 hours for the same work. The machine does not replace the human being, but rather opens up a previously little-used creative potential. An architect who has a construction robot at her disposal is therefore more creatively free and less bound by the limits of traditional construction methods. This means that the architect does not decide whether to build a straight or curved wall for reasons of cost, but based on her taste for design. Build resource-efficiently thanks to robots But it's not just about aesthetics, it's also about resource efficiency. If a robot piles bricks on top of each other, this is called additive assembly. In contrast to this is the subtractive design that is widespread today, where material is removed with a milling machine, for example. This creates waste products. Modular construction, in which you build from a small unit to size, therefore has the potential to conserve resources.

Additive building with ABB robots © NCCR Digital Fabrication, Gramazio Kohler Research ETH Zurich Another example of how robots help to conserve materials is the creation of convoluted concrete shapes without the use of formwork. For this purpose, robots weld together wire frameworks that are filled with shotcrete. Since there is no formwork, which is required for conventional concrete casting, this construction method saves resources - especially when it comes to one-off projects and not mass production.

The construction of a curved concrete wall © NCCR Digital Fabrication, Gramazio Kohler Research and Agile and Dexterous Robotics Lab ETH Zurich Multidisciplinary teams will roll up their sleeves As soon as the new laboratory opens its doors, multidisciplinary research projects can be implemented. Architects, engineers, robotics specialists and materials and computer scientists are all pulling together as part of the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication, which is based at ETH Zurich, to put this facility through its paces, which is unique in the world. 20% of the usage time should also be allocated to external users. In this way, other faculties of the ETH as well as other research institutes should be able to conduct research on the advanced technology.

Among other things, in situ construction is to be simulated in the laboratory. The situation of a robot on the construction site is simulated. What does it take for a robot to find its way in a typically unstructured area on a construction site? Some kind of artificial intelligence needs to be developed. After all, the machine has to find its way in the unforeseeable situation with certain programmed rules. A challenge whose solution will probably soon shape the buildings in which we grow up and grow old, shop and go out, work and study in today.

-Christoph Birkholz


6 June 2024


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