Pioneering Work

Elias Baumgarten
19. August 2019
Samuel Cros in conversation (Photo: António Sérgio Moreira)

The use of robots for construction is no longer a completely new idea. For more than a decade now, intensive research has been carried out in this area. But so far only a few procedures and products have made it to market. One of them is ROBmade by Keller Systems. We spoke with product manager Samuel Cros about the robot-made wall elements composed of clinker bricks, and about their architectural potential.

Elias Baumgarten: ROBmade is a type of adhered masonry. Instead of being assembled by workers, the bricks are assembled by robots. You advertise that you give architects new design opportunities. But how did it even come about? 

Samuel Cros: What Keller Systems sells today as ROBmade is the result of a research project at ETH Zurich (ETHZ) that was initiated more than ten years ago, led by Gramazio & Kohler Research. Robotic arms as we know them from the automobile industry were deployed for construction tasks for the first time. Initially, the machines were developed to repeatedly execute a task that always remains the same. The researchers’ basic idea was to program the equipment in such a way that it could instead carry out thousands of different movements and processes. The simplest and most obvious task for the robots was to pick up and position brick. The ETHZ team soon recognized that the help of specialists was needed. And that’s where our company came into play. Christian Keller was very enthusiastic and wanted to get on board with the project. That’s how our collaboration with the ETHZ began. Keller Systems also made a strong financial commitment.  

In 2006, we jointly produced 72 wall elements for the Gantenbein Winery by Valentin Bearth, Andrea Deplazes and Daniel Ladner. We wanted to demonstrate to the world the performance and applicability of the technology. The project worked out well. After that strong success, even more resources were invested in the research and development. Of course, there have also been setbacks since then. Today, architects and planners express great interest in our ROBmade technology. 

EB: You prefabricate individual elements? 

SC: At our factory in Pfungen, Switzerland, we manufacture parts up to 4 meters in length and 3 meters in height. From there they are transported to clients around the world and assembled on site.

Photo: António Sérgio Moreira
Control and freedom

EB: Which advantages can architects expect in comparison to conventional methods? 

SC: First of all, the bricks are adhered instead of being joined using mortar. This allows for freely formed shapes and extreme geometries that were not possible before. By using robots, a degree of precision is also achieved that would not be possible by conventional means. Certain visual effects can only be obtained this way. 

And there’s also something else that’s very important: In each case, we work together with the architect on the 3D model that is also used to fabricate the elements. So the process is facilitated. Whatever was designed on the computer subsequently becomes reality. Thanks to ROBmade, designers gain more control over the finished product. 

EB: That sounds great. But to do that, you surely have to buy and learn expensive software... 

SC: Learn yes, buy no. We work with Rhinoceros (Rhino) software developed by Robert McNeel & Associates. Rhino is in widespread use and is part of the curriculum at many schools. We’ve developed a free plug-in: BrickDesign. So architects can design with the same program that, in simple terms, later controls the robots. The Gantenbein Winery, for instance, was designed and implemented that way.  

In many cases, today’s designers have the feeling that more and more people are standing between them, their design and the finished building. Spurred by the debate over Building Information Modeling (BIM), it is sometimes claimed that architects are continually losing influence. But with ROBmade, the opposite is true. The influence of architects increases.

Bernhard von Erlach with Evonort, London-Islington, 2019 (Photo: Paul Tyagi)

EB: Then all designers must be big fans of ROBmade. So why is the product still used so rarely? 

SC: Rarely is a bit understated. Demand is increasing slowly but steadily. One of the most serious counterarguments is the cost. When the bricks are fired, shrinkage takes place that is difficult to calculate and which can sometimes cause variations of several millimeters. But we need clinker bricks that are precisely uniform, because the tolerances for ROBmade are extremely minimal. Until now, this has meant that every single brick has to be post-processed – which naturally costs additional money. For that reason it’s currently a very exclusive product. Thus ROBmade is still primarily suitable for prestige projects. However, we are working diligently to find a solution to this problem. 

Another obstacle is acceptance. I’ve had a lot of conversations with architects who are excited about our product but tell me it’s difficult to get approval from the authorities. Our firm also had to go through a similar experience in Zurich. I do not say that in anger. Here in Europe we have a very long and rich architectural history that we are justifiably proud of. And our laws and standards are very strict. Introducing new forms and techniques therefore requires lots of patience and persuasive effort. Elsewhere, for example in Australia, it is much easier. Let me give you a specific example: In London, where Bernhard von Erlach and Evonort jointly designed a small extension for an existing house in the Islington area, they encountered some difficulties due to the use of our product. The public authorities were strictly against the project, saying it does not fit into the surroundings. Approval was not granted until the responsible official was replaced.

Bernhard von Erlach with Evonort, London-Islington, 2019 (Photo: Paul Tyagi)

EB: Since you’re showing me pictures of the Islington house, in which it’s clearly evident that ROBmade only constitutes the outer shell: Is it generally only possible to design facades with it, or can it also be used to make load-bearing components? 

SC: ROBmade can be used to produce a kind of cladding. The elements cannot carry loads or assume structural functions. Our structures are solely self-supporting. Everything else would pose mathematical challenges that are presently difficult to master. Our product always needs a structure made of something like concrete or steel. Both insulation and weather protection must also be separately installed. 

EB: Is that a focus of current development work? It could allow for great interiors and enable the new forms to also be experienced inside the building. 

SC: No, right now we are dealing with other questions. It has been shown, for example, that our elements can have a strong impact on the propagation of sound. That’s interesting for both indoor and outdoor spaces. Unfortunately, acoustics is still a neglected topic today. That holds true in equal measure for dwellings and the urban environment. We participated in a research project conducted by the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts – it was called “Stadtklang” and ran from 2016 to 2018 – in order to develop a more precise understanding of the influences on acoustic quality. We see great potential there. Another focus of our development is on the materials we use. We would like to also be able to offer elements with wood, glass, or cork in the future.

Bernhard von Erlach with Evonort, London-Islington, 2019 (Photo: Paul Tyagi)
Robots on the construction site?

EB: To conclude, I would like to jump from the specific to the broader context. We should not talk about your product and its potential while remaining silent about the possible social consequences of digitization. Won’t it also be easier in future to use robots for mediocre construction tasks in order to reduce the number of workers to a large extent? 

SC: That’s a difficult question. It is not our goal. We are interested in aesthetics and architectural quality. But there are companies, especially in the United States and Australia, that are actually working on that. I personally think that in the future, the construction process will become increasingly automated, and perhaps robots will appear on building sites, too. I do not believe that technological progress can be held back. I cannot say what time horizon we are talking about, however. For the moment there are still many problems to resolve. Reflections and experiments at ETH Zurich have shown, for example, that there is already a lack of simple things like a constant supply of electricity on the construction site, not to mention the difficulties cause by the sometimes harsh climate in Switzerland – you cannot simply expose today’s robots to cold and wet conditions.  

Currently, the building sector is far behind other industries in terms of automation. It’s easy to explain why. It became clear to me when I visited car factories in Germany as part of our research: Each car body of a certain vehicle type is the same, but which building is exactly like the other? I think that to begin with, prefabrication will continue to gain in importance. 

EB: If we fully think through the exploitation of technical potentials, many jobs will be lost. Do you fear the possible political and social consequences that could arise? Will many people no longer be able to find work? I could imagine that significant social tensions will arise, or that existing ones will intensify further. And a further increase in political radicalization doesn’t seem unlikely to me either. 

SC: Certain jobs will no doubt become obsolete. Nevertheless, I find your question is worded too pessimistically. When we fear something, we stand with our backs to the wall. New tasks will also emerge, and these will in turn require higher qualifications. In his book Hit Refresh (2017), Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, gives a good example: No one today can imagine manually doing the work of a mechanical excavator or a bulldozer. The stages of technological development have – despite of all the fears – been taken successfully, over and over again throughout history.

Samuel Cros has been interested in manufacturing processes since his childhood. The trained engineer was involved in the development of facade cladding before continuing his studies in the Master of Advanced Studies program for Architecture and Digital Fabrication at ETH Zurich. With his professional experience and his skills in computational design, he has been the product manager for ROBmade at Keller Systems since 2017.
This article originally appeared as "Pionierarbeit" on Swiss-Architects. Translation by David Koralek / ArchiTrans.

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