Robots to the Rescue
Caroline Høgsbro and Sven Pfeiffer design the future using one of the world’s oldest materials. They redesigned a robot arm that ‘prints’ architecture out of clay. Layer by layer, it transforms ceramic paste into highly complex objects. Like sci-fi skyscrapers, their eerie Printed Tower structures reach for the sky. The architect and robotics specialist share a vision of exploring entirely new manufacturing technologies and reinventing architecture, as well.
According to Høgsbro, “economic reasons and other factors restrict today’s architects to predetermined sizes and shapes. There’s also less leeway for experimentation with materials before they arrive at the construction site.” “At the same time, buildings are increasingly filled with technology, which impacts their longevity and recyclability. As a result, a lot of craft-based expertise is increasingly marginalised,” interjects Pfeiffer. “What’s more, we must find alternatives to concrete, especially in response to climate change. While concrete offers some undeniable advantages for building, such as plasticity and load-bearing capacity, it also creates a lot of problems. Its main ingredients are sand and cement. Sand is increasingly becoming scarce and the production of cement releases a lot of CO2, not to mention the substantial problem of concrete refuse.”
Surprising versatility of ceramics
Thanks to their useful characteristics, ceramics have become a sought-after, versatile, high-tech material. Depending on the respective chemical composition, ceramics can be extremely hard, heat-resistant, insulating, or conductive. This has made ceramics popular in manufacturing microchips, superconductors, modern stovetops, or even rocket tips.
Photo: Jan Windszus
Researchers keep discovering ever-new uses of ceramics. Caroline Høgsbro praises the material’s eco-friendly properties: “The compound we use is biodegradable and recyclable. This allows me to experiment as much as I like. Trying a few things doesn’t really cost anything, since I can simply wipe it all away and return the paste to the bucket. In a way, we make 3-D sketches. The whole process is both sustainable and fun for the architect.” She adds, “We also use ceramics as a placeholder for all the materials derived from earth. We want to figure out whether we can exploit this process to use natural, low-tech materials for smart, high-tech architectural projects.”
From cake topper to acoustic panel
So, how does this additive manufacturing process work exactly? Sven Pfeiffer takes us through the Printed Tower technique. “Our 3-D printing robot arm works just like a piping bag used for decorating cake, only we use liquid ceramics. Once the material has cured, the result becomes a solid architectural component.” Caroline Høgsbro is especially intrigued by the method’s larger potential. “We think bigger. Instead of focusing on firing porcelain parts, we wanted to develop a process that we can use directly on site to construct buildings at any scale.”
The results are only limited by the scale of the robot and its extruder. Whether large and fast or intricate and precise, the process is extremely versatile and allows Futurium visitors to print a variety of different objects with equally different functions. Depending on the chosen ‘pattern’, we can produce the elements that can filter air, improve insulation, or enhance a room’s acoustics. All parts can also be joined together to form a larger structure.
A helping hand
Another interesting aspect of Printed Tower is its close yet flexible collaboration between human and machine. Unlike regular industrial robots, their CoBot was deliberately developed to work with people. Its sensors ensure that it stops straight away when it collides with a person. “While industrial robots have been around for a while, they are mostly used to execute automated tasks in controlled, closed environments. They are not designed for direct human-machine interactions. Our robot arms do not need to be put in a cage. We can collaborate in close proximity,” Pfeiffer explains.
Architects can use it to design projects in the studio, to intervene in the design and construction process on site, or to make repairs and changes later on. We feed the robot design information, the computer calculates the shape. “In the future, and like the PC, such robots might even enter our homes and help us design our own living environments by, for example, adding a new wall or mural,” the architect adds, excited by the collaborative potential.
Learn local, build global
At the Futurium, anyone can try right away. “In our workshops, visitors can mix the ceramic and ‘feel’ the right consistency. Or teach the robot different movements to explore the interplay between human and machine,” Pfeiffer explains. “You can use the controls or simply your hand to lead the robot through the positions. It remembers your movements, so you can teach it relatively complex sequences without any computer code.” Programmed glitches, surprises, repairs, and defects are deliberately left in place.
This hands-on experience might inspire a visit to the nearest fab lab or maker space, or even to a place where this natural raw material has been used for thousands of years. Caroline Høgsbro looks forward to broadening her horizon. “We’re about to take our students to India to find out more about clay architecture and traditional building methods. We want to learn how to scoop this material straight from the earth and create brand new geometries and structural elements that have a much smaller environmental footprint. If we want to make better use of the planet’s resources, we need to get smarter and more high-tech about it.”
It's all in the mix
Design local, build global: the Printed Tower team considers this openness to exchange expertise, experiences, and entire designs a huge opportunity… For designers – and for all of humanity. “The future is collaborative! We need to work together and tear down the borders between design and technology. Considering the massive challenges, we face today, retreating to our respective niches is simply not an option,” Sven Pfeiffer underscores. “I think Buckminster Fuller’s quote really hits the mark: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ That’s the pioneering spirit we want to encourage.”
Photo: Jan Windszus