An Example of [En]coding Neo Materialism: ProtoRobotic FOAMing

Essay: 'An Example of [En]coding Neo Materialism: ProtoRobotic FOAMing', pp. 56-65.
Published in [En]Coding Architecture. The Book, ed. by Liss C. Werner, Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University - School of Architecture, 2013.

Marjan Colletti

In 1968, David Campion rightly anticipated, albeit with some scepticism, the use of computers within the architectural practice: ‘It is perhaps still too soon to foresee all the ways in which computers will eventually be used by architects; there is, however, little doubt that they will become indispensable to the architect of the future. Since architects are trained to use their imagination it should not be so difficult for them to use their imagination in applying computer techniques and technology.’[1]
In the last two/three decades a quantum leap in computing power and availability, flexibility and adaptability of computer-aided design (CAD) software packages has made computers more than indispensible tools to the discipline of architecture. They have ambitiously revolutionized the design process, widened the formal vocabulary and fast-forwarded the theory of architecture into the 21st century. Nowadays we are entering a postdigital age of what may be called New Materialism, focussed mostly on finding ways of translating digital design into real life prototyping. The research here described inquires how CNC technologies and in particular industrial robots can cope with, and boost, the realization of the raising complexity of architectural forms generated by designers, and how they can lower the levitating costs of bespoke shapes, fabrication and assembly.
            Rethinking the ways buildings are made can have a considerable impact on costs: it can save shipping and personnel costs, lower energy and time loss. The study of fabrication and assembly protocols, shapes and joints, structures and skins goes hand in hand with material research: its production, behaviour, properties, parameters and capacities. ProtoRobotic FOAMing investigates how digital and computational design techniques and robotic fabrication technologies, in combination with novel material use (in particular foam) can be improved to achieve the synthesis of material aesthetics (e.g. shapes, ornamentation) and performativity (e.g. structure, insulation).

Neo Materialism
I would argue that the history of architecture is also a history of materials, material innovation, material assembly and fabrication (as well as many other parallel histories) and how they have drastically changed the discipline. It applies to the material integration of stone, concrete, steel, glass, digital matter and will apply to hitherto unknown material discoveries of the future.
In a contemporary debate, materiality as a driving force of innovation is reflected in a postcyber, postvirtual, postfluid and postdigital paradigm shift towards Neo Materialism. Neo Materialism marks the ambition to escape from the socially and environmentally unsustainable, virtual and cyber architectural visions of the early days, as well as from the standardized, off-the-shelf and environmentally and financially unsustainable architectural production methods of the past towards innovative applied theories, techniques and technologies. On account of new demands of the economical and ecological crisis it is understandable that architects’ subjectivity and idiosyncrasy are questioned. However, I will not subscribe to a total dismissal of these values! An over-rational misguidance of the discipline throughout these paradigm changes can bring architecture to lose its open and dynamic nature, which sets it apart from the building industry.
Despite the bewildering variety of the contemporary digital architectural debate, the most pressing questions today are no longer concerned with providing theories of cyberspace or virtuality, but with providing a novel practice and theory of actual applicability. After the initial period of definition and discovery of disembodied virtual realities, data-scapes and cyberworlds, the endeavour and challenge for this generation of creative thinkers is to fully engage with the actuality of digital technologies. For example: social media and telecommunication technologies do not exist in a detached, virtual and cyber sphere. They are a fully integrated part of everyday living, they are fully tactile: swiping on a smartphone’s screen is a physical experience.
Initially, cybernetics and virtual reality had brought forth a belief in architecture underpinned by the complete disembodiment of cyberspace, culminating in an almost quasi-religious myth of total liberation from physical limitations (think of the famous goggles or data gloves for example). The liberation from the body allowed artists and architects to dream of unheard potentialities.[2] However, early 21st century architectural design postulates material truth (party disguised by a non-humancentric design agenda) and parametric certainty as core functions of design, rather than cyberworlds. By rethinking real and physical processes of design and fabrication, architecture itself has performed a u-turn. In the tug of war of actual body versus virtual phantom, body wins. Matter matters, more than ever. Because of this trajectory from matter to substance, from virtual imagery to machinic fabrication etc., the terms postdigital and Neo Materialism could be used to define this era of real-world physical production and a new digital paradigm based on evolving processes (including file-to-factory protocols and biotechnologies).

It is save to say that some of the most relevant research in contemporary architecture is targeted at the translation of digital aesthetics (for example formal exuberance, geometric complexity, parametric ornamentation), via postdigital ethics (in particular environmental sustainability, low carbon impact etc.) to the implementation of Neo Material design and fabrication processes (computer numerically controlled [CNC] machines, Rapid Prototyping [RP] technologies and industrial and soft robotics) in architecture. However, architecture has not encompassed robotic automation yet.
Industrial robots are mechanical handling devices – advanced automation systems – controlled by computers and software. They are particularly useful in a wide variety of tasks such as assembly, material handling, product inspection, and of applications such as welding, laser cutting, painting etc. Thanks to the advances of digital systems, computational power, and programming techniques, more complex tasks can be processed, making robots more flexible, multi-functional, multi-axial, re-programmable, precise, and indefatigable. The automotive industry has been the first and largest employer of industrial robots (the first, Unimate, joined General Motors in 1961). In 2011 the World Robotics report gave an estimate of 1.3 million industrial robots operating in the factories world-wide by the end of 2014.[3] Most probably an underestimate, according to the increase in sales in the last years. Surely the number will increase soon, and drastically. Architecture, which has deeply embraced digital and computational technology, is therefore ready to assimilate robotic intelligence into the design and fabrication processes of architecture, such as assembly, material handling, product inspection, and a plethora of application such as welding, laser cutting, painting etc. Moreover, ProtoRobotic FOAMing is an attempt to find an innovative technique for implementing industrial robots into novel fabrication processes.
            Robots and foam have been used before. Of course CNC milling of foam is per se a widely used subtractive process, for example in the nautical, car and aero spatial industries, as well as in product design and architecture (milled foam is in fact often used to produce moulds and formworks for casting). But rarely it has been used as final product, taking advantage of its insulation qualities, ornamentability and translucency, as in ProtoRobotic FOAMing. Robots are also generally used to hot-wire cut foam boards to minimize material waste (e.g. the 2010 Periscope Foam Tower by Matter Design). This is a subtractive process, too, which eliminates residual material. Robots are used for additive processes as well; either as assembly of individual entities (bricks etc.) or as layering of continuous material (such as concrete or clay). Furthermore, robotic spray-layering additive processes with foam have been attempted elsewhere.
However, the process implemented in ProtoRobotic FOAMing is unique. It is neither a subtractive nor additive process. It is an analogue real-live simulation of natural growth and self-organization algorithms – since the resulting prototypes resemble biological and natural structures, such as bone structures, plants, tissue, sponges, corals… Therefore, FOAMing could be seen as a Neo Materialist example of encoding and decoding complex analogue formation processes by observing, computing and controlling material behaviour.
So far, ProtoRobotic FOAMing’s computational focus is on 'MultiMove coordination' to develop novel robotic production techniques. The manufacturer describes MultiMove as ’a function embedded into the software that allows up to four robots together with work positioners or other devices, to work in cooperation including fully coordinated operation’.[4] REX|LAB at the Institute for Experimental Architecture at the University of Innsbruck, Austria consists of a flexible and open 16-axes ABB MultiMove Coordinated Robotsystem with 3 IRB 2600 robotic arms. It allows for a market-leading performance in terms of accuracy, speed, cycle-time, programmability and synchronisation with external devices. The system is controlled by RobotStudio, ABB’s software together with HAL, an integrated Grasshopper plugin (developed by Thibault Schwartz), which provides a more direct link between 3D modelling and the robots’ controls. It is world-wide the only MultiMove system with this particular configuration.

ProtoRobotic FOAMing
In most general terms, this research is situated in the field of digital design-research. In this particular instance, this includes [en]coding morphogenesis (draughting, modelling, scripting, programming) in conjunction with material research (foam), as well as fabrication workflows and technologies (CNC, robotic MultiMove). The title summarizes the twofold objectives of this arts-based design-research:
ProtoRobotic: The project looks at the potential of earliest forms (from Greek prōtos) of robotic fabrication in architecture in the attempt to start bridging the gaps in scale, price and expertise between relatively simply achievable RP models and 1:1 architectural production by CNC equipment (i.e. milling machines, multi-material 3D printing machines) as well as multi-axial MultiMove robotic systems, such as REX|LAB.[5]
FOAMing: FOAMing suggests that an architecturally more challenging and original alternative may be found to the Passive House guidelines, which for example recommend thick layers of insulation to be sandwiched between cavity walls or hidden behind render. The research investigates the possibilities of design freedom and morphological manipulation that result from freeing and extroverting an insulation material such as blown foam boards from these cavity walls. This research proposes how we could take advantage of the enormous geometric potential given by digital design tools and CNC technologies to apply ornamentation, geometry and texture onto these large surfaces, which could partly be indoors, as well as outdoors. This would open up new possibilities to architects and designers to design facades in more 3D terms, as the thickness of the foam allows for more complex shapes and textures. Furthermore, this approach makes the retro-fitting of badly performing buildings more design-attentive and precise: with the implementation of thermo imaging and 3D scanning, precise bespoke facades can be designed to accurately fit existing conditions.
More importantly the research investigates foam as agile malleable and soft material (as found in regular tubes). Mixed with additives, such unstructured mass can be stretched into stiff yet light, filamentous and porous and fragile structures. The combination of the openness of fully controlled robotic movements, semi-controlled material mixtures and unpredictable morphogenetic behaviour is challenging. However, clear pattern of biomimetic formations emerge, with stunning similarities to natural biological systems. Simply put: FOAMing seems to manage to decode in an analogue way encoded complex accelerated biological growth algorithms – as can be seen in the prototypes developed at the University of Innsbruck, Smartgeometry 2013 in London, Architecture Challenge 13 in Vienna.
But we should not misunderstand such processes of [en]coding patterns, forms or processes as mere simulation or mimicry – especially with foam: certainly considered a ‘non- materials or environments (think of fun parks and many replica grottos around the world) – or as proper scientific endeavour. It is and remains a creative, and therefore approximative, act of design. The creative act of [en]coding production, behaviour, properties, parameters, capacities, affordances and constraints of (natural, biological or chemical) materials by the aid of advanced digital, computational and robotic processes goes beyond simulation. It enters a world of production. Of cultural production through machinic – robotic – production.

Detail of the Molly Wally exhibition stand at the Royal Festival Hall Southbank Centre London, for the ICE group, London Centre for Nanotechnology & Department of Chemistry UCL, by marcosandmarjan. CNC flipped-milled foam installation with notched MDF structure. Photograph by Marjan Colletti.

REX|LAB at Smartgeometry 2013 at the Bartlett School of Architecture, in the process of stretching soft foam into self-supporting filamentous structures. The Smartgeometry Robotic FOAMing cluster was run by Marjan Colletti, Georg Grasser, Kadri Tamre and Allison Weiler. Photograph by Marjan Colletti.

Self-supporting filamentous foam structures (by Y1 students at the Institute for Experimental Architecture.Hochbau and by the workshop participants of the Smartgeometry 2013 Robotic FOAMing cluster). Photograph(s) by Marjan Colletti.

Detail of self-structured bifurcation filaments. Photograph(s) by Marjan Colletti.

Detail of quasi-fractal self-organization of filaments. Photograph(s) by Marjan Colletti.

1.   David Campion, Computers in Architectural Design (London: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1968), p. 300.
2.   Perhaps it is not a coincidence that books on the topic VR use the term ‘dream’ in their titles: Neil Spiller, Digital Dreams: Architecture and the New Alchemic Technologies (London: Ellipsis, 1998). Other examples: Paul and Charla Devereux’s updated classic Lucid dreaming. Accessing your Inner Virtual Realities etc.
3.   World Robotics News: ‘IFR: All-time-high for industrial robots. Substantial increase of industrial robot installations is continuing’. Frankfurt, 1 September 2011. accessed Nov. 2013.
4.   ABB MultiMove functionality heralds a new era in robot applications’, MultiMove technical article.doc ABB – 2004-03-01,$file/abb%20multimove%20functionality.pdf accessed Nov. 2013.
5.   REX|LAB at the University of Innsbruck consists of a flexible and open 16-axes ABB MultiMove Coordinated Robotsystem with 3 IRB 2600 robotic arms. This unique piece of equipment is directly controlled via the HAL Robot Programming & Control plugin for Grasshopper (designed and written by Thibault Schwartz).