The IDC Kuka HA-100 Robot is initially being used to demonstrate a versatile new fabrication methodology for building houses that looks to deploying thermoplastic composite paneling to allow non-standard yet low-cost housing.

The thermoplastic paneling methodology marks a breakthrough in offering the economy of a continuous-feed process with the technical advantages offered by composites (ie it attains an economy of scale that is uncommon in the more typical one-off mold logics of thermoset technologies). The thermoplastic process also avoids locking up the resin with a catalytic hardening agent, relying on heat to meld pure polypropylene and glass fiber fabrics under heat and pressure, offering full recyclability, so it is remarkably ‘green’ (as independent studies from a group at Stanford University has shown).

The panels consolidate two skins of thermoplastic fabric either side of a core material (which can be varied in thickness and material), offering a highly resilient composite paneling system. The research looks to milling these basic panels to provide structural and weatherproof connections, looking to build highly resilient thin-skin building envelopes that are simply snapped together by unskilled labor.

The robot demonstrates highly accurate yet entirely non-standard cutting of the panels, avoiding the usual pitfalls of standardized modular housing, which has historically proven to be unpopular: here we suggest material AND fabrication innovation to offer a resilient, materially efficient, customizable housing.

The primary goal of the IDC research is to offer a scalable solution to second-world housing, which is a pressing need given the burgeoning developing world population. It may also prove a valid alternative to first-world building technologies given the high quality of the panels we aim to produce, and their elegance as a form of building enclosure. We are currently demonstrating the technical validity (through fire and structural testing) of using such thermoplastic panels as a unitary structure/enclosure methodology, which would offer a highly streamlined fabrication process, benefitting from CAD CAM methods to radically challenge current building-industry methods.

As part of this research we have set about developing new protocols for linking architectural modeling software (Rhino/Grasshopper) directly to robotic milling instructions, such that a simple architectural model quasi-automatically generates actual milling instruction.

Already, we feel, this sets the MIT Kuka apart from most others being used by architects (or anyone), bypassing at least two levels of software (a milling software and the Kuka software, plus an interface called Codebreaker).

This should allow students (or anyone) to quickly design panelized buildings and fabricate them directly as high-quality composite structures that can be essentially self-erected, and we are just coming on-line with this: an exciting moment in offering alternative logics for building housing. It should permit high-quality, low cost, low environmental impact housing.

Mark Goulthorpe

We thank IDC for their generous support, and would like to thank the following:

The immediate Zero+ team comprises:

Prof Mark Goulthorpe, MIT Dept of Architecture

Stelios Dritsas, IDC (CAD CAM research)

Sawako Kaijima, IDC (FEA research for composites)

James Coleman, MIT grad (robotic research)

Zach Conway, MIT undergrad (robotic research)

Vasco Portugal, MIT PhD (thermal/environmental research)

The project is being aided by several industry partners:

Rich O’Meara, Core Composites, Rhode Island (Composite Material Consultant)

Hossein Borazghi, AS Composites, Montreal (Thermoplastic Paneling)

Mark Bishop, Waterfront Solutions, Baltimore (Composite Engineering)

Tim McCaul, Ove Arup (Structural Engineering)

And technical and material support is being given by:

Fiberglass Industries FGI (Twintex Thermoplastic Fabrics)

TechnoFibre and Avtec (Fire Treatments)

Environmental Analysis is being given by:

Prof Mike Lepech (and his students), Stanford University Dept of Civil and Environmental Engineering

“Rapid prototyping of rapid prototyping machines”