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«The era of robot builders begins»

Fabio Gramazio, professor of architecture and digital fabrication at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, explains the technological changes in the industry.

© Wikimedia

«Robots and architects are allies.»

In short, this could sum up the philosophy of Fabio Gramazio. Born in 1970, the architect received his degree from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and is known around the world for being at the forefront of digital and robotised fabrication. In 2000, he founded Gramazio & Kohler with Matthias Kohler. Their firm has won many awards. They have created some remarkable buildings, such as the Gantenbein Winery building in Fläsch, whose façades were assembled by robots.

Gramazio & Kohler has notably received the Global Holcim Innovation Prize and the Acadia Award for Emerging Digital Practice. More recently, their Mesh Mould robotised construction project received the prestigious Swiss Technology Award (2016) and the Concrete Innovation Award (2017).

In 2005, Fabio Gramazio opened the world’s first laboratory dedicated to robotised architecture at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. His recent research is described in the book The Robotic Touch: How Robots Change Architecture, published in 2014.

Many people believe that the construction industry is undergoing a true revolution, entering the 4.0 era. Is that really happening?

That is correct, we are in the middle of some very big changes in the construction industry. Just like other fields such as auto manufacturing, the building industry is going digital. Data is playing an increasingly important role in the whole process, from initial designs to constructing buildings.

But unlike other industries, such as telecoms or the auto industry, the digital transformation seems less apparent in construction. Construction sites are still construction sites...

In many ways, construction is still an archaic industry. The digital transformation is on its way, but slowly. It’s a gradual revolution. There are two reasons for this: first, construction is a far more complex industry than the manufactured products industry. Cars, for example, are made by the millions, which means it is possible to test new technologies and make them profitable. In construction, however each product is usually unique. In this context, it is much more difficult to implement and generalise a new tool. Second, the industry overall is still quite afraid of change, which slows down innovation.

What will digital technology bring to the construction industry?

It will help us build better buildings at a lower price. Take nature, for example. All its forms are extremely complex. They are complex for a reason: so that they can be as efficient as possible. That’s exactly what we want to do in the construction industry. But there’s a hiccup: the human brain struggles to solve difficult problems. Conversely, machines have no problem handling large amounts of data. So, using data will help us improve the efficiency of the industry, for example by using less materials, generating less waste, and building more complex structures.

A cross between an architectural object and a work of art, these rubbercovered structures designed by Gramazio & Kohler were constructed and assembled entirely by a robot. © Gramazio & Kohler

Do you think that completely digital companies like Google can accelerate this revolution, similar to Tesla, which revolutionised a too-conservative automotive industry?

That is an excellent question. The construction industry is very static, so instead of traditional players, we could see new players on the scene that introduce necessary innovations. But I don’t think that will be the case. The construction industry is far too complex for that, even more complicated than the auto industry. To break into the market, you need very good connections and experience. In my opinion, innovations are more likely to come from start-ups partnering with big companies rather than new players. But you never know... I can’t rule out the possibility of a giant like Google investing in one of these start-ups, or even revolutionising the industry from the outside. Anything is possible.

After digitalisation, the next step is automating construction, with robots replacing workers on construction sites. Is that science fiction?

No. 3D printing, for example, is already bly that we need. used in small-scale productions to pre-fabricate parts of buildings. But robotisation is also up against the complexity of the industry. Robots are very efficient working in a predictable environment, such as a factory. But in construction, everything is always changing. Construction sites change every day, which makes it difficult to automate the work.

But since the 1990s, Japanese and Korean architects have used robots on their construction sites...

True, but that failed. In my opinion, they made two mistakes. First, they didn’t think of the added value. Their machines turned out to be too big and too expensive to truly compete with workers. With no competitive advantage, there’s no future. The second mistake, which isn’t actually a mistake, is that it was just too early. The technology just wasn’t ready yet. In terms of robots, the 1990s were prehistoric compared to today. Now, technologies are more advanced. We’re starting to enter the era of robot builders.

Let’s go back to 3D printing. 50 years, before construction sites are It’s usually used with plastic. Will we soon see houses made of plastic?

No, but it isn’t anything to do with the material. In theory, 3D printers can print any type of material, especially metals, which makes it very promising for the construction industry.

But there are two limits: it’s a slow, expensive process. Buildings are very large, so it would take an extremely long time to build a tower with a 3D printer. There’s also an optics problem. At the moment, these machines print line by line, which produces a visual aspect that is rather lacking in aesthetics. For all these reasons, my partner, Matthias Kohler, and I decided to work on an alternative to 3D printing. We programmed a robot to build a façade brick by brick.

«I can’t rule out the possibility of a giant like Google revolutionising the industry from the outside»

Instead of a robot limited to the ground, could you use drones for that?

We also did test runs with drones and they were very promising. The technology is cutting-edge and inexpensive, and drones have the advantage of being able to place any type of object anywhere on a construction site. If we use multiple drones, similar to a swarm of insects, they could work together to build a structure extremely quickly, which solves the two main problems of 3D printing – speed and cost. But there are still hurdles: to carry heavy loads, we would have to build large drones, which are more difficult to control and have risks associated with that. Furthermore, drones geolocalise through a GPS when they’re outside. This technology isn’t precise enough yet to guarantee the quality of assembly that we need.

Compared to other countries such as Japan, which is known for its robots, where does Switzerland fall in this digital transformation of the construction industry?

I think we’re doing really well. The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) opened a National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) dedicated to digital fabrication, which ETH, EPFL and other Swiss universities are part of.

For workers and small and medium-sized enterprises, the transformation in the industry could be difficult, though...

When you think in terms of “revolution”, change is dramatic. But if you take into account that it’s a “slow revolution”, it’s no longer dramatic. Workers and SMEs won’t wake up one morning and find that everything is different. It will take a lot of time, maybe Let’s go back to 3D printing. 50 years, before construction sites are robotised. Switzerland has excellent schools and universities to invest in this future. But in my opinion, training in new digital tools needs to happen earlier in the school curriculum.

A drone assembling an architectural structure. This installation, presented at the Fonds régional d’art contemporain in Orléans from 2011 to 2012, comprised 1,500 elements. It was designed by Gramazio & Kohler in collaboration with Raphaello d’Andrea, a professor at ETH Zürich. © Gramazio & Kohler

What are your upcoming research projects?

We’re focusing on digitalising processes using wood. As I already explained, construction is still an archaic sector overall. But that’s not true for wood, which is on the cutting edge technologically speaking. Several years ago, no one really wanted wood buildings because they were poor quality and very expensive. The industry had to completely reinvent itself to avoid disappearing, and so it digitalised a large part of its processes. Now, wood has an excellent reputation. Also, it’s always easier to introduce the next innovations in a sector that is at the forefront of technology, rather than behind.

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