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Agency and change: robotics and other disruptive construction technologies

Dec 6, 2019
  • Article by Tim Schork

UTS is on the frontline of investigation into the current and the coming disruption in the AEC industry. Its research reveals it’s vital that Australia invests in robotics if it is to remain competitive on the world stage.

When trying to predict the future it is always important to reflect on the past and take stock of the present. Innovations in architecture and transformations in its practices have always been closely linked to technological change and practices of representation. For example, inventions such as the drawing compass, the perspective drawing and the computer have had a direct impact on architectural practices, including our discipline’s conceptual vocabulary, assumptions and understanding of space and form; our practices of representation; our practices of design and making; our educational curriculum; the organisation of the office and the designed and built object. A key difference to technological innovations of the past is the present exponential rate of change.

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Figure 1: Robotic incremental forming of copper panels (left) and full-scale prototype of copper façade system developed in collaboration with Dr Paul Nicholas from the Centre for Information Technology and Architecture (CITA) at the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts © Brett Boardman

We are in the age of the Anthropocene and as a society we are facing significant challenges. Among the most impactful are fast urbanisation, climate crisis, resource depletion and a growing skills shortage. The reasons for this are manifold. For example, it is estimated that, due to the worldwide population growth and urbanisation, approximately 2.6 billion people will require new housing by 2050.

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Figure 2: Model of developed distribution strategy of proposed air dispersion system of Systems Reef © UTS School of Architecture

Accommodating a soaring population

According to the review of the NSW Government’s report ‘A Plan for Growing Sydney’, New South Wales alone will need to accommodate 1.74 million new residents over the next 20 years. It’s a demand that currently can’t be met due to the low and stagnating productivity in the construction industry. Furthermore, the building industry is globally one of the largest consumers of resources and energy, one of the largest contributors to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and one of the major producers of waste. At the same time, the building and construction industry is one of the largest industry sectors worldwide. In Australia the construction industry equates to eight percent of our national GDP. However, it remains one of the least digitised sectors. To maintain our current standard of living, Australia needs productivity to grow by 2.5 percent annually. The Australian Productivity Commission sees applying new knowledge and technologies – with robotics at the forefront – as being able to assist with this. There is an imperative for Australia to invest in robotics if it is to remain competitive on the world stage.

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Figure 3: Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) simulation of duct junction© UTS School of Architecture © UTS School of Architecture

Speeding up transformation

While we have adopted some digital technologies in some aspects of our profession’s day-to-day business, in contrast to other industries and the rest of the world around us, the uptake and transformation has been slow and the majority of our construction processes have hardly changed in the past century. While digital technologies have radically transformed whole industries, much on our building sites has remained the same. Given this take up of technology in most aspects of our day-to-day life, it is worth reflecting on how we currently still construct and build, and question if we should possibly also change these.

It is apparent that what is required to address these challenges are not small incremental changes, but a shift in the cultural mindset and a fundamental rethinking of existing and long-established design and construction practices. The social, environmental and economic impact could be substantial. The potential and opportunities afforded by Industry 4.0, augmented and virtual reality, the digital twin, sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, advanced manufacturing and digital fabrication technologies such as construction three-dimensional 3D printing and robotic fabrication for architecture and the built environment are increasingly explored and applied.

 

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Figure 4: Large-scale robotic 3D print of airduct as part of the Systems Reef 2.0 project © UTS School of Architecture

Forward-thinking

And change is occurring, at many places and at multiple scales. International governments have recognised this and have awarded major funding to universities in order to establish national research centres, such as the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication at ETH Zurich, the Cluster of Excellence on Integrative Computational Design and Construction for Architecture at the University of Stuttgart in Germany or the InnoChain European Training Network (ETN), which is funded by the European Commission, which all explore, develop and apply innovative building processes that are facilitated by digital technology.

At UTS we have been fortunate to form strong and lasting partnerships with these international initiatives, and closely collaborate with them and visionary local partners who made a conscious decision and commitment to actively explore and develop digital technologies and their transformational change and engage with us in shaping the future.

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Figure 5a: Shredded pellets from plastic waste © UTS School of Architecture
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Figure 5b: 3D print with upcycled plastic © UTS School of Architecture

BVN

One of these collaborative partnerships is with BVN Architecture, which has a shared focus on the adoption of new technology and robotic fabrication. One of our current research projects, Systems Reef 2.0, uses BVN’s Sydney office as a living laboratory. The project seeks to develop a new ecosystem of service systems to support flexible contemporary workplaces within existing commercial buildings that support dynamic, adaptable and flexible workplace environments. Key objectives of this project are to design a system that not only significantly reduces the embodied carbon by looking at the entire life cycle and possible material palette of these systems by investigating large-scale robotic 3D printing, but to give occupants agency to actively influence the spatial qualities of these continuously changing environments according to their needs

Another key partnership is with ARUP with which were are currently developing an intelligent façade system and exploring the potential of using recycled materials derived from plastics in additive robotic fabrication for construction made from recycled plastics that are fabricated through robotic 3D printing. The throwaway lifestyle of contemporary cities has led to a damaging increase of plastic waste, with the vast majority going to landfill. Entitled ‘Making Sense of Sensing’*, this research project has the aim of recalibrating the environmental impact of the built environment and drives meaningful action towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals through experimental design and construction, sensing, machine learning, behavioural robotic fabrication and data-driven design.

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Figure 6: robotic 3D printing and flexible material substrates © UTS School of Architecture

The benefits of these technologies will be manifold. Aside from economic benefits and an increase in productivity through the inevitable automation and close integration of some aspects of our construction processes, they also create new possibilities in the way we use traditional construction materials such as timber and concrete and how new techniques of digital fabrication can be used to develop new forms of construction. All of these will help counteract the escalation of housing costs and construction times. Furthermore, the important environmental, social and cultural benefits – such as the reduction of material use and resources through smarter design, and the overcoming of the increasing shortage of workers, leading to better gender equity in our industry – are more significant and important. We all have agency in this and can drive change that will shape the future of our cities.

Footnotes

* The Making Sense of Sensing project is funded by the ARUP Global Research Challenge 2019 and is a collaboration between the Transformative Technologies and Data Poetics Group at the UTS School of Architecture, ARUP Australia and Dr Paul Nicholas from Centre for Information Technology and Architecture (CITA).

* Dr Tim Schork is the Associate Head of School of Architecture and an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture within the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building (DAB) at the University of Technology Sydney. He has explored the influence of digital design, simulation and fabrication technologies on architecture for over 15 years. His research investigates the progressive integration of computational design and technology into architectural practice and construction. His interdisciplinary research aims to harness the full potential of digital technology and to rethink design and construction with the goal of enabling game-changing innovation in the building sector. His research has been published internationally and he was recently the session chair for Machine Learning and Data at ACADIA 2018 and a scientific chair of RobArch 2018 at ETH Zurich and is a co-editor of the book Robotic Fabrication in Architecture, Art and Design 2018 published by Springer.He co-founded and co-directs the UTS Transformative Technologies and Data Poetics Research Group. Located within the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building the group is an interdisciplinary research platform that pools together expertise from the fields of architecture, engineering, industrial design, visual communications, interaction design, mechatronics, computer and materials science and robotics.

* This article first appeared in AR 162 and UTS was a partner at the inaugural Business of Architecture and Design (BoAD) conference hosted by Niche and Architectural Design Review.

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