<p xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">A seven-axis industrial robot was used to fabricate the shell of a pavilion at Stuttgart University due to its flexibility and precision.</p>

A seven-axis industrial robot was used to fabricate the shell of a pavilion at Stuttgart University due to its flexibility and precision.

Credit: ICD/ITKE/IIGS Universität Stuttgart

Robotic fabrication is becoming a more popular approach to constructing geometrically-complex assemblies with a high degree of precision. Initially, architects employed robots in the construction of small-scale prototypical installations. But as the technology continues to develop, and architects' experience with it evolves, the machines are being used to create larger, more permanent structures.

Earlier this year, Stuttgart University’s Institute for Computational Design completed the construction of its Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall, a pavilion created for the purpose of demonstrating innovative building methods. With a prefabricated lightweight timber shell, the project represents an important milestone in the maturation of robotic construction processes. According to the project team, the hall is the first of its kind to have a primary structure made entirely of beech plywood plates that are prefabricated by a robot.

Based on sophisticated structural simulation tools that can accurately predict material behavior, the team was able to create an ultra-thin plate structure of only 50 millimeters in depth. Using the microscopic plate joints in sand dollars as inspiration, the team devised a series of plywood plates with perimeter finger joints for plate-to-plate attachment. They employed a seven-axis industrial robot to fabricate the plates due to the robot armature’s flexibility and the precision required to craft the complex individual joints. In addition to the 243 interior plates, the team also prefabricated the building insulation, waterproofing, and exterior cladding.

Outlines of the plates comprising a sand dollar (left) and their microscopic joints.

Outlines of the plates comprising a sand dollar (left) and their microscopic joints.

Credit: James Nebelsick, Universität Tübingen

The new exhibition hall demonstrates that robot-driven fabrication is no longer a fad, but a legitimate method for building construction—particularly in cases where designers wish to create formal complexity with heterogeneous components while optimizing material resources. Nearly all off-cuts were reused as parquet flooring. This effort also bridges the gap between product and building: as raw plywood is transformed into elaborate, interlocking panels, the unique construction system becomes inseparable from the final product.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.