Working Prototypes: SmartGeomtery 2010

April 15, 2010

Does file-to-factory fabrication represent the future of design and construction in the built environment? Mat Ward journeys to this year’s SmartGeometry conference in Barcelona to find out.

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Enrico Dini speaks with the slight fervour of a man who has staked everything – secure, well-paid work as a mechanical engineer, his life savings, the very roof over his head – in pursuit of a technology for which he himself recognises the world may very well not be ready. It is a technology that has the potential to radically alter the way that buildings are designed and constructed. We are at the SmartGeometry 2010 conference in Barcelona, where Dini is presenting his 1:1 scale three-dimensional printer – a machine that can quite literally print buildings.

Dini perfectly emblematises this year’s SmartGeometry conference. Now in its seventh year, it has gone from a small gathering of like-minded individuals interested in sharing computational design knowledge and skills, to an annual event that draws hundreds of attendees from around the world. During the course of this time, parametric design has migrated from an esoteric methodology on the fringe of architectural practice to become a core component in the design toolbox of most large-scale firms. From talking to some among this year’s participants, however, there is a sense that somewhere during transition from small, arcane gatherings in university auditoria to the upscale international events and slightly more glamorous environs of more recent years (the 2010 conference was held in Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s modernista masterpiece, the Palau de la Música) the founding sensibilities of the group may have been diluted. It could also be speculated that, as the technology of parametric and computational design has become more widely embraced, and the outlets for the dissemination and discussion of ideas related to the field have become more widely available, the SmartGeometry Group’s role in championing these technologies has become less critical. If the world may still not be quite ready for printed buildings, it has long since become accustomed to the idea of digitally designed ones; Dini’s presence at this year’s conference, together with its focus on fabrication more generally, reinvested the event with some of the pioneering energy of the past.

That this was a very different affair from the more recent annual SmartGeometry get-togethers was made very clear to me on my arrival at the associated workshops, which were held away from the main venue at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC). The IAAC, appropriately enough, has its home in a repurposed industrial workshop in Barcelona’s Poblenou, a former manufacturing and industrial precinct of the city. Stepping into the huge triple-height volume of the IAAC, I was confronted with a vision that wouldn’t have been too far out of place 150 years ago at the peak of Europe’s Industrial Revolution. Workshop participants swarmed throughout the space, clambering to finish off the full-scale prototypes they had been working on over the previous three days in an atmosphere thick with smoke and the cacophony of CNC milling machines, laser cutters, robotic assembly arms and even a bank of sewing machines all powering away at full throttle.

The fabrication-focused IAAC already boasts of having the most advanced digital production laboratory of any educational institution in southern Europe. For the purposes of the workshops, several of the conference sponsors and participants also donated extra machinery, resulting in what could well have been the biggest and best-equipped fabrication lab on the planet, outside of MIT. The stated intent of all of this heavy-duty industrial machinery and hands-on manufacturing was to force the focus away from purely abstract digital problem solving towards fabrication ‘in the real world’. As the SmartGeometry Group’s Jonathan Rabagliati described, “We wanted to blow away the perception of fabrication as being all about a figurine on a desk.”

Instead, through the fabrication of working prototypes it was hoped to be able to test the boundaries of what was possible (acoustically, structurally or however) in a real world scenario, and then feed this learning back into the modelling and production process. In this sense, workshop participants were also forced to grapple with the complications that can arise when information is translated across systems – not just from one digital platform to another, but also from digital to the realms of high and low tech production, and back again. The objective, as Rabagliati pointed out in a presentation following the workshops, was to move the computer out of centre stage.

There were some intriguing instances of this cross-platform dialogue at play. The ‘Curved Folding’ cluster worked together with RoboFold’s Gregory Epps to develop a design methodology and manufacturing process that transitioned in and out of multiple production platforms, both digital and actual. The group began development of their project with folded paper models, which were three-dimensionally scanned into a CAD format. This format was then interpreted in the Generative Components tool (developed by Bentley Systems, the core sponsor of the SmartGeometry Group) to optimise designs for manufacturing in RoboFold, which, as the name suggests, employs industrial robots to fold sheet metal. The designs were then outputted into a laser cutter, which prepared the sheets to be folded (an initial batch of vinyl models was also prepared for design development, prior to the final sheet metal model).

The ‘Rapid R&D to Rapid Assembly’ cluster was headed up by FACIT’s Bruce Bell. FACIT, the slogan of which is ‘We print houses’, is a UK company that builds prefabricated homes from CNC-milled plywood components (see AR109, p64-67). The cluster made use of similar technology, with the objective of the workshop being to design and refine new concrete shuttering and reinforcement components that could be rapidly assembled utilising ‘snap fit’ instant connections – producing a better end result and reducing site time. Like the Curved Folding group, the Rapid Assembly team also engaged in a production process that moved back and forth between the digital and the real, applying fabrication and physical experimentation to inform successive iterations of the design. The end result? A pile of failed prototypes, discarded like so many cracked bones… and one beautifully functional connection, that locked into place with a satisfyingly firm ‘clunk’ when tested on the timber moulds. A deceptively simple idea, well-realised, but one that nevertheless offers a not-insignificant improvement to the time-consuming and expensive process of building concrete formwork.

With most of the workshop clusters engaged in the grubby, hands-on process of fabrication for the bulk of the time (one participant was heard to remark, or perhaps bemoan, that the crafting of the prototypes was taking 10 times as long as the design) you couldn’t have asked for a starker contrast to the sterile environs of the 2009 event’s hotel conference rooms. The outcomes too were quite different – in keeping with the aspirations for the event, the emphasis was clearly focused on empirical experimentation, facilitated by the kind of intuition and material play more commonly associated with craft and construction than with the abstractions of digital design. But while the objectives of the workshops were explicitly experimental, or pedagogical, the burning question of course was just how much impact these file-to-factory technologies are likely to have on architectural production in practice, not to mention in the construction of our built environments. In this respect, the symposium talks presented an opportunity to hear from some of the leaders of the fabrication industries about the current capacities of the various technologies – and, of course, what kind of applications they felt were achievable in the context of the construction industry at present.

Dini’s talk on his D-Shape printer was perhaps one of the more visionary and inspiring presentations, in as much as he has already managed what until only a couple of years ago would have been considered hopelessly fantastical – the construction of a three-dimensional printer that can print buildings at a 1:1 scale. Dini’s printer spans six by six metres and prints in a medium that combines sand with a binder to form a limestone-like material that is both waterproof and more durable than Portland cement. He has been working with architect Andrea Morgante (formerly of Future Systems) on the construction of a pavilion for a roundabout in the Italian town of Pontedera, and the pair has already printed a two-metre tall, 1:4 version of the final project in the D-Shape workshop. While not a full-scale, habitable building per se, as a proof of concept it is compelling – the project, entitled Radiolaria, was explicitly designed by Morgante to express the printer’s capabilities. Inspired by the intricate mineral skeletons produced by micro-organisms known as radiolarians, the design is characterised by the kind of organic curves that would typically necessitate very expensive formwork, not to mention steel supports, in order to be realised. The 1:4 maquette, which is entirely free-standing, requires neither of these.

Despite these successes, however, Dini has struggled to make the project a commercial success, supporting his work with the printer mostly through grants and the occasional small-scale commission for bespoke furniture pieces. After an initial investment from a big cement company fell afoul of the GFC, Dini is now back on the search for more funding to further develop the project.

It is small wonder he is having so much trouble – even he admits that in order for his technology to succeed, it would also need to overcome the inertia, and even wilful obstruction, of the monolithic and enormously powerful construction industry. Indeed, another speaker at the conference, Rupert Soar, was quite sceptical of the chances of three-dimensional printing being widely applied to the construction of entire buildings. Soar’s opinion is not readily dismissed either; he has considerable pedigree in the field of additive manufacturing, being a co-founder of the Rapid Manufacturing Research Group at Loughborough University, which now boasts the second largest three-dimensional printer in the world (after Dini’s machine). Because of its incredibly competitive price point when compared with traditional construction methodologies, however, he does believe the technology is more likely to find use as a means of creating bespoke components, cheaply.

This reading was born out in the presentation by Bart Van Der Schueren of Materialise, a commercial fabrication business specialising in additive manufacturing and stereo lithography (or three-dimensional printing). Based in Belgium, Materialise has the largest rapid prototyping facility in Europe; however, less than one percent of this capacity is devoted to servicing the construction industry – its biggest markets, in fact, are in the medical sector. As Van Der Scheuren pointed out, more than one million hearing aids annually are produced through additive manufacturing.

Outside the realm of stereo lithography, even Bell, from the seemingly successful CNC prefab company FACIT, professed to have no idea as to whether or not a truly economical business model might be possible for the rapid fabrication of buildings.

Perhaps the most telling presentation with respect to both the potential and future of this technology, however, came from RMIT’s Mark Burry, who focused on his ongoing work on the Sagrada Familia (as he pointed out, given the location of this year’s conference, he could hardly have done otherwise). Burry, the Sagrada Familia’s executive architect, talked of the challenges Gaudi faced in describing to the stonemasons how to cut the stone for his complex designs. When laying the stonework for Gaudi’s Casa Mila, for example, stone often had to be lifted up and down the building up to four times for recutting before it was deemed fit for purpose. Today, Burry and the rest of the architectural team are still constantly engaged in conversation with the stonemason. Nowadays, however, that conversation is considerably more fruitful – the stonemason, you see, has a seven-axis milling machine that can work with blocks of granite up to six metres long. Since the adoption by the architectural team of parametric software, and CAD-aided fabrication by the stonemason, the speed at which construction of the Sagrada Familia is advancing has never been quicker. The communication of the design from architect to craftsperson, digital model to built form, has been streamlined… and cut stone need only be moved into place once.

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