New architecture: the contribution of robotics and algorithms

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Robotics and architecture - a combination that promises interesting solutions. We talked about this with Pierpaolo Ruttico, founder of INDEXLAB, who will take part in REbuild in the session "Digital process: procurement-design-realization.

What is INDEXLAB and what services does it offer?

INDEXLAB is an experimental laboratory of Milan Polytechnic that deals with the design of innovative building systems for the construction industry. New processes and applications are tested in the laboratory, with the aim of creating products with high aesthetic-functional performance. The complex shaped prototypes are made with the most advanced technology and the use of natural, metallic, polymeric, cementitious and composite materials. INDEXLAB is a multi-disciplinary research environment that offers architecture-engineering firms and companies a series of services for computational design, digital fabrication and robotics, simulation, interaction and media design. (www.indexlab.it)

The dialogue started with REbuild is an opportunity to discuss the emerging themes of "algorithmic" design and the automated production of unique and personalised elements. Can you explain to us what is behind these themes?

If the architecture of the twentieth century was characterised by mass production and in the series of its components, the twenty-first century will be more and more characterised by differentiated and unique elements produced industrially thanks to the now mature and widespread technology of robots and numeric controlled machinery. As a result of the possibilities offered by computers, architecture has been undergoing an evolutionary process towards an ever-increasing geometrical complexity of shapes for about fifteen years.

Contemporary architects are increasingly proposing architectural designs with soft, sinuous shapes that adapt to visitor flows, rather than to wind or solar paths, a conception of the building as a fluid and dynamic whole, where the base becomes a seamless coating and cover without continuity solutions. To give a feeling of movement to buildings, contemporary architecture uses an expressive language characterised by double curved surfaces, fields of modulated vectors, gradients, attractors and repulsion systems, where patterns emerge from a plot in which the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Thanks to new programming platforms, it is now possible to generate algorithms and scripts that, from the first project phases up to the production and assembly phases, allow us to manage - through the code - both forms and quantities, potentially integrating aesthetics and functionality, structural rigor and performance energy. In the process of defining the "project code," the manufacturing processes and limits also come into play, a fundamental aspect for generating competitive logical-constructive systems. Robotics, and more generally numerical control, are the tools that allow us to enrich the production lines and implement the so-called "digital making." It is therefore essential that we create a transversal synergy between designers and builders, so that geometrical patterns are developed that interpret the variation and can be implemented economically and competitively.

We talk about “robotic fabrication” as the future of architecture, but what is the state of the art of this “digital making” and what are the challenges to be faced?

The first robotic applications in the construction world go back to 1980s and 1990s, when the use of automated machinery was tried out in Japanese building sites, initially aimed only at increasing productivity, implementing executive quality and improving conditions for the workers. Today, thirty years on, we are investigating another innovative aspect linked to the potential of robotics applied to architecture: serial production of non-standard elements, through automated working and assembly techniques; the extreme precision and speed, thanks to the six or more degrees of freedom of anthropomorphic robots, allows complex and articulated workings and manipulations.

The experiments carried out so far are united by a common thread: exploiting the capabilities of the robots to investigate and enhance the characteristics of the different materials, understanding and studying their respective production processes. This new research approach also leads to a reversal in the design method in which the form is not purely arbitrary, but closely linked to production strategies. The focus is no longer therefore to create shapes a priori, but to define precise logical rules, which, in the nature of algorithms, are able to govern the constructional processes operated by the robots. In the last decade, the great contribution of university research lies precisely in the ideation of innovative systems that are versatile and attentive to the main needs of contemporary architecture: able, that is, to produce flexible and customisable components, architecturally appreciable, optimised in the consumption of resources, with economically and ecologically sustainable materials. Thanks to the robots, the future of the construction industry will continuously receive new stimuli, ensuring the application of still unknown scenarios to today’s architecture. Inventing new production logic and tracing back to corresponding project logics will allow us to spread the awareness of "digital making" more and more.