Digital construction Switzerland: ETH researches on ABB-Robots

Author / Editor: SMM Schweizer MaschinenMarkt / Susanne Hertenberger

ETH is opening a world-wide unique robotics laboratory, which will be used to test how architecture projects can be implemented in a resource-efficient, low-emission and consolidated manner in the future.

Wire frame for the construction of a curved concrete wall: a simple task for the robots.
Wire frame for the construction of a curved concrete wall: a simple task for the robots.
(Source: NCCR Digital Fabrication, Gramazio Kohler Research und Agile and Dexterous Robotics Lab ETH Zürich)

ETH Zurich opened a new building: the «Arch_Tec_Lab», to explore the impact of digitization and automation on the construction sector. Whoever enters the building is involuntarily drawn to the ornate corrugated wooden roof made of thousands of wooden slats with the help of a robot. A fascinating sight! Under the roof: a two-storey gallery with light-flooded offices. In which the architecture researchers are currently designing the future of construction, which is already brought to the present in the laboratory on the ground floor of the new building. The Robotic Fabrication Laboratory, or RFL, is a globally unique robotics laboratory, in which four ABB robots hang from a ceiling-mounted Güdel surface portal. Together, the installation is based on 36 system axles that can be used to place objects with a precision of half a millimeter at any location in the 45 x 17 x 6 meter space. The ABB control system can control all axles - a world record, speculates the project team.


As a sponsor of the four robots and their control system, ABB is significantly involved in the project. «RFL demonstrates the competence of ABB in the field of robotics: As a partner of one of the most important architectural faculties in the world, ABB is committed to the transfer of knowledge between research and industry», said Frank-Peter Kirgis, Global Business Line Manager at ABB.

«With the RFL, we are taking an important step towards a digital construction culture», said Professor Matthias Kohler, who, along with Professor Fabio Gramazio, leads one of the eight professorships of the Institute of Technology in Architecture, have collaborated on «Arch_Tec_Lab». Tobias Bonwetsch, the project manager, who has led RFL since the initiation of the project in 2010, adds: «We will explore the future of construction in this laboratory» An exciting challenge with regard to the unique possibility to produce two-storey objects on a 1: 1 scale in a laboratory.

Future of construction

Digitization and automation are forging ahead in the construction sector. Although, slower than in other industries, but unstoppable. Construction in the future will be more digital, modular and automated. The idea is that a continuous, digital chain links all the steps of construction process - from design to construction. And thanks to robots, architects have a variety of new design forms and functionalities. In this way, robots close a «Fabrication Gap» - which means to bridge the gap between design and reality, between plan and feasibility. The architect plans what is feasible. The robot builds, what is planned.

A clear explanation of how robots can be used in the construction industry is the comparison with three-dimensional printing process. Similar to 3D printers, robots in construction can give an object a certain shape during the creation process and thus determine its functionality. Only the robot does not work with ink, but for example, with wooden slats or bricks. Thus, forms and constructs are created, the fabrication of which would be possible manually, however, it would be very costly. A module of the curved roof of the «Arch_Tec_Lab» for example, can be nailed together by a robot in about 10 hours, whereas, humans would need more than 100 hours for the same task. Thereby, the machine does not replace humans; on the contrary, it taps the little used creative potential of architects. An architect who has a construction robot at his disposal is, therefore, more creative and less bound to the limits of traditional construction methods. Thus, the architect makes a decision to build a straight wall or a curved wall based on his/her taste and not the cost.

Multidisciplinary teams

As soon as the new laboratory opens the floodgates, multidisciplinary research projects can be implemented. In order to thoroughly assess this world-wide unique installation, architects, engineers, robotics specialists and material and computer scientists are taking part in the National Research Center (NFS) Digital Fabrication, which is located at ETH Zurich. In addition, 20 percent of the utilization period is to be awarded to external users. Thus, other faculties of the ETH as well as other research institutes will be able to carry out research on the advanced technology.

More information: ABB Schweiz AG, Brown-Boveri-Str. 6, CH-5400 Baden