Future FabricationPosted: March 7, 2012
There are three observations I want to share around fabrication technologies that highlight the extraordinarily diverse innovation occurring in the world. At the small scale are robobees, tiny robots that exhibit an extraordinary level of manufacturing detail – the photos are mind blowing when you really wrap your head around the complexity being fabricated at the size of a penny. At medium scale is the Nike FlyFit shoe which has been getting a lot of press, and proves to me that the future of design is fibre. At the large scale, while the quadrocopters may be small, the possibilities are enormous as architects experiment with their own version of rapid fabrication.
Small – Robobees
Harvard engineers, partnering with researchers from the Wyss institute (read about them here) have created tiny penny sized robots intended as low cost swarm bots to be sent out and pollinate the world. The purpose and function of the robots themselves are secondary to the fabrication process, I want to make it clear that I am not posting this because they are little bees, but because they are an amazing fabrication innovation.
Fabricating in layers
Humans manufacture in layers all the time. A chip bag is actually around 7 layers of thin film. Some layers are for colour, others for structure, food safety, etc, and are a big reason why they are almost impossible to recycle. The robobees take fabricating in layers to a new lever by sandwiching stiff and elastic layers together to create living hinges at an impossibly small scale. Then, to top it all off, they craft a folding armature that pops the little robot up and into its final form.
The full details are available here, with detail filled movies.
Why is this interesting
The core insight is the design of material composites and assemblies that make integrated function possible. Architecture does this a lot at a large scale, where everything is an assembly, but most of the time they are layers of different functions over the top of one another; think of how a condominium tower is “assembled”. These robobees are able to have living hinges, that pulse due to an electrical charge. Therefore there is no need for a motor powering a mechanical drive train, but rather a current that deforms a material and triggers a function built into the material assembly. That is exciting.
Medium – Woven Shoes
Nike launched their FlyFit shoes and Fast Company’s Design blog has an excellent article explaining the full story. The short version is that shoes, despite the enormous innovation, are still problematic for runners due to weight, friction and moisture. Nike’s team were inspired, almost five years ago, to launch an enormous investigation into fabrication when they listened to athletes suggesting they would like a sock, rather than a shoe, to run in. There is room for a blog post on good design process and the value of research, but someone already wrote that here, so I’ll move on.
The future is fibre
As you can see in the image above, Nike has been able to sew a three dimensional structure that is then attached to a traditional sole (not sure how yet). The result is a sock like upper, with no waste, and integrated structure. By interweaving different threads, some with more strength, others with more porosity, they are able to have gradients of different functional properties across a shoe that conforms directly to the shape of the foot.
Tim McGee and I have a running conversation that the future is fibre. Everything in nature is a fibre. From beetle exoskeletons, to the incredible structures found in the botanical world, they are all fibres. The results are complex, malleable, repairable materials that integrate a vast array of functions. Have a look at a cross section of human muscle and you’ll see what I mean. Humans on the other hand build with large brittle mono-materials and achieve complex function by mechanically integrating multiple components.
The fibre shoe and beyond
The shoe has caused a stir, and if the athletes wearing them at the London Olympics win a bunch of medals will likely be a big financial success. But Nike will really benefit when their patents are adopted by the medical industry for forming custom casts and splints. If their technology becomes a platform for integrated woven structures, the applications could be very interesting; flexible electronics for one. The Iron Man, super warrior that america has always dreamed of may be knitted, a true costumed superhero with embedded circuitry between impact resistant fibres.
Large – Swarm Construction
There are some amazing researchers exploring future fabrication processes for the architectural scale. I could do a whole post on concrete, but I’ll save that up for later. The latest and greatest I’ve seen are quadrocopters, little autonomous robots with four small helicopter propellors, assembling a large custom structure. The helicopters were programmed by architects Gramazio & Kohler to build a 3.5 metre structure using foam blocks. The movie showing the adventure is remarkable, although it may take a while to get the haunting buzzing sound out of your head after watching the full movie.
Flight assembled architecture
It all sounds very William Gibson sci-fi, with his nanobots self assembling cities out of landfill, but with the speed in which robotics research is advancing, it is not inconceivable that swarmbots will be able to assist in construction. The deeper question becomes why? I’d like some help answering this from any architects reading this post, as I’m not sure I can fully wrap my mind around the deep value of these explorations. Intriguing custom facades, walls, and sculptures are interesting, but what will be the deeper shift? I’m assuming DARPA has ideas for self assembling structures in dangerous environments, and NASA is likely curious to assemble research stations on the moon using robots. I’m really curious what the trickle down technology will be.
Note: the grand, megastructure vision projected by the architects behind this project is viewable here.
Custom fabrication and flexibility
Where I see an opportunity is in repairing the old infrastructure, or being able to design adaptability. If silent construction bots are available 24-7, they could build structures in the same way that biological organisms do. Additive construction, from small building blocks that are part of a constant cycle according to live feedback. Does this suggest a building that deconstructs anything unpopular, while extending and reinforcing the popular units?
Perhaps the swarm bots will be better for dissassembly rather than assembly. Watching a few buildings be demolished and the brutish methods used to collect recyclable materials continues to highlight to me the long path required to make better reuse of precious natural resources. Swarm bots that remove a building brick by brick, pipe by pipe, and stack them all away in containers for transit to the next site would be amazing.