In the previous post, we have seen how Parametric Design is shifting the architectural practice, changing the way we approach the built environment; adopting more data-centric workflows and thus informing the design process.

Here, we dive deeper into the actualisation of this new architecture and how with input from other industries such as manufacturing, we are able to bring the construction of the built environment into the 21st century.

In this post:

  • What is Parametric Design’s role in construction?
  • How does this change construction?
  • Manufacturing processes for the built environment
  • Automation in construction
  • Digital Workflow
  • How to get started

What is its role in construction?

Apart from generating design options and optimisation within a design space, parametric tools have the capability to bridge the design and the building process.

Essentially, a building is an agglomeration of components that are manufactured separately. By specifying architecture with great detail in the 3D space, we are able to translate this information for construction by breaking it down into manufacturable components. Hence, by creating a design-to-fabrication workflow, we are able to close the gap between the digital model and the physical construction process

Data-driven design approaches create nonstandard architecture, often requiring customised components. Fortunately, today’s 3D model is a more than just an onscreen geometrical representation. Using parametric tools, quantifiable parameters (shape, volume, size etc.) can be extracted for manufacturing/fabrication feasibility.

design → optimisation + rationalisation → building components → fabrication/manufacturing strategy → manufacturing instructions → built product

How does this change construction?

Empowering designers

A more data driven design can be manufactured with ease by adopting a digital fabrication workflow i.e. file-to-factory documentation that allows the design to go from a design to a final form production. Complex geometries are broken down into manufacturable components to be manufactured in the process of Mass Customisation, giving the designer greater dexterity in the design process.

Working on a collective model

Adopting a complete digital workflow allows designers to accelerate traditionally complex modelling by building a feedback loop of design and construction information; preserving the aesthetic whilst ensuring a design is realisable.

Improve efficiency of construction

Parametric design workflows open up opportunities for modular construction of components, reducing redundancy, time on site and reducing the physical workload on humans by leveraging on machinery for the manufacturing of components.

How is it done?

By engaging in varying manufacturing methods (e.g. additive and subtractive), we are able to mass customise construction components for the built environment, through whats known as digital fabrication. We are also able to engage digital workflows in the assembly process, allowing for larger and more complex building components.

Digital fabrication is a workflow where digital data directly drives the manufacturing process, primarily from CAD models. Robotic fabrication is an extension of this sphere, leveraging on industrial robotic arms to extend the scale of manufacturable components.

These methodologies are entirely possible in a 3D environment like Rhino, using parametric tools such as Grasshopper. Robust plugins have also been developed within academia and the open source grasshopper community to control industrial arms, namely, KUKA PRC, TACO ABB, Hal Robotics etc. Using these plugins, fabrication tool paths can be directly generated from the 3D model.

Using the KUKA PRC plug-in to convert geometric information to robot instruction

What can it do?

Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing (AM) or additive layer manufacturing (ALM) is the industrial production name for 3D printing, a computer controlled process that creates three dimensional objects by depositing materials, usually in layers. Additive Manufacturing provides a material and energy efficient way to quickly produce architectural components of varying complexity.

Design information can be directly translated into additive manufacturing ready files that will be used to directly manufacture these components.

A 3D printed weave panel wall installed at Nike Town London
3D Printed Floor at Amsterdam's Schipol airport

Subtractive Manufacturing

In subtractive manufacturing, objects are carved out of a solid block, CNC milling being the most common process. The introduction of robotic arms, extends the possibilities of CNC milling, enhancing the dexterity of the possible cuts with the higher number of axes of movement. Laser cutting and hot wire, conventional model-making techniques, also fall within this category of subtractive manufacturing..

For example, Woodchip Barn built by AA’s Design & Make students, consists of 25 timber forks harvested from the forest that were 3D scanned and milled to form the interlinking connections that form the spine of the structure.

Woodchip Barn

Examples of Robotic Fabrication

Robotic Fabrication opens up the possibilities of digital fabrication by allowing architectural components to be made at varying scales, limited only by the working area limitations of the robots employed. Here we look at examples of robotic fabrication at differing scales.

Small: Facade Elements

ITeCons Laboratory's Facade

At the smallest scale, robotic fabrication can be used for making decorative elements such as facade panels, interior design and product scale that can transform the quality of spaces. An example of this is the ITeCons Laboratory’s facade in Coimbra.

ITeCons Laboratory's Facade

Medium: Bridge

Apart from decorative elements, individual structural components can be fabricated in a single process such as concrete 3D printing. These parts can then form a larger architectural work that is fully structural and standalone, such as Striatus, a project by Block Research Group (BRG) at ETH Zurich and Zaha Hadid Architects Computation and Design Group (ZHACODE) as seen in the video below

Automation in Construction

Large: Prefabricated Buildings

As a response to labour shortages brought about the pandemic and a reduction in available skilled manual labour, construction industries are increasingly curious about automating building assembly processes. The key challenge to overcome at this scale is the nature of the multistage process of manufacturing.

Working either autonomously or collaboratively with human beings, robots are able to streamline the design to fabrication to assembly process, reducing the workload of the human being to that of supervision and planning of fabrication and assembly processes.

For example, the Spatial Timber Assemblies is an innovative prefabrication process for timber frame modules. It combines timber frame construction with the precision and speed of robotic fabrication, regardless of the level of structural complexity.

Spatial Timber Assemblies

Experimental Robotic Fabrication

Extra Large: Public Structures

Architectural design can engage a bottom up approach. Designers can develop interest and research around materials and building techniques, prior to upscaling it. The flexibility of industrial robotic arms offers freedom to designers to explode the limits of the material and geometry made possible with parametric design.

One example is BUGA Fibre Pavilion, a recent public project as part of the fibre winding research conducted at the University of Stuttgart. Researchers are intrigued by the material properties of fibre composites and speculate its use as building material. As fibre composites are usually fabricated with molds, the researchers took a winding approach to create large scale differentiated hollow structure for architectural purposes. As the building technique does not exist yet, researchers adopted robotic fabrication to generate instructions and syntaxes for this mode of construction using parametric tools from ground up.

Fabrication of individual modules for BUGA Fibre Pavilion
Exterior of BUGA Fibre Pavilion

Digital Workflow: How does it all come together?

Often, multiple software are used for architectural projects, impeding productivity. This issue is alleviated now, with increasing software interoperability.

Establishing a pipeline for software to communicate and exchange information in real time allows stakeholders to work collaboratively on the fly.

More importantly, this pipeline can stream data to robots for production and is capable of interpreting feedback, thus, creating a cyber-physical loop. This relationship can then enhance the product quality or foster dynamics between the human and machine within the creative domain.

Following are a few examples that bridge existing software in the industry.

Design Stage

CAD → 3D

Rhino Worksession is great for linking CAD drawings real-time within the Rhino environment. This allows stakeholder to make changes and visualise updates across computers.

3D ↔ BIM

Rhino.Inside.Revit allows one to use rhino+grasshopper natively within the Revit environment. It is also bi-directional. Using this, rationalised design can return to Rhino+Grasshopper as geometries for fabrication. Tool paths, target position and manufacturing constraints can be generated and simulated.

Production Stage

3D → Robot

As mentioned earlier, Robotic fabrication relies on a software pipeline to connects design to production. The efficiency depends largely on the smoothness of the integrated workflow. Grasshopper is a flexible platform for connecting design directly to industrial robots. Plug-ins can also be developed to communicate with robots and embedded systems. This can be done either in real time or generating manufacturing instructions to be loaded onto the robots, otherwise known as offline programming.

Resources (How to get started)

Try the Toolkits (Grasshopper)

Here are a list of robot toolkits available. These are toolkits you can use in grasshopper to program the robots directly using geometric data coming through a rhino-grasshopper workflow.

Robotic fabrication also requires entry level understanding of computation and mathematics such as matrices and inverse kinematics etc.

Be Familiar with Programming

Also, programming literacy is highly recommended for advancement beyond basics. Here are some of useful resources that provides easy entry in the context of design.

Explore possibilities

View projects from these online resources:

Conclusion: Whats next?

Future of manufacturing lies in data and flexible automation. This influences how we build too.

Digital and robotic fabrication is not about reinventing the wheel or complicating the process of making but it serves as an avenue to extend an artisan’s capability. It can unlock new design aesthetics or expedite collaboration between stakeholders. Design goes beyond the aesthetic and regulatory, and is now holistic through its ability to cater for manufacturing and assembly from the initial stages.

Although scaling and efficiency remains a point of debate, the intrinsic dynamic between building science and design will continue to supercharge the development of this emerging workflow for all scales of architecture.

This post is written by cmdR

cmdR specialises in robot programming, workflow design and software integration. Our interest ranges from architecture to techno-centric art performances and is always open to collaboration and experimentation.

If you are interested or curious for more, you can visit cmdR at our website or reach out for conversations on anything in regards to architectural robotics, computation, collaboration and beyond.