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Robotics for all – low cost interventions

26/09/2018 | By: Graham Brown | #Innovation


Ahead of his talk Robotic Buildings For All at UK Construction Week, Graham Brown, Director at Envelope Architects, explains why the topic of on-site manufacturing is ripe for conversation.

We are in exciting, but nervous times and I for one am exhausted by the repetitive statements that Britain requires a million homes and there is no one to build them. Apparently all the UK based builders are either packing up to head back to European Union parts or going to put on a pair of slippers and retire. The construction industry has an image problem and 52% of the UK has voted to make manufacturing homes in the UK a fairly unattractive prospect to our European neighbours. On the positive there is huge demand for new homes, SME’s can now compete with the volume builders through the Custom House Build Act and the CIL (planning gain) exemption.

All eyes are focusing on some giants such as L&G mustering up a substantial off-site manufacturing plant to make homes of the future. I am a big fan of modern methods of manufacturing and tend avoid brick in my designs, so I applaud such ventures. I was initially drawn to the subject of ‘on-site manufacturing’ by the developments in low cost robotic arms being launched such as Automata.


My dream was that Maplins would be the ‘go to’ place for parts to make low cost robotic assistants. Alas they have become another victim of High Street Retail. I have also been inspired by the Maslow saw (Image Below) which is effectively a space saving vertical CNC router that costs around £300 to make. The router is suspended by two bicycle chains with stepper motors guiding the cutting path. It appears to be open source and the possibilities for producing interesting Architecture and Furniture are so very promising. The machine was originally designed decades ago to draw pictures.


More recently Italian Kick-Starter has developed the Goliath 360CNC Robotic Router (Below).


You Tube is an amazing tool for global people watching with some quirky adaptation of technology. Whilst metal robotic arms dominate the car manufacturing world it is developments within the realm of Silicone or Soft Robots that make more sense to me. There is more movement and dexterity within the workings of an elephant’s trunk than wrist, elbow and shoulder joints. The Octopus is also heralded as an inspiration amongst the developers of Soft Robotics. The basics of moving armatures is through either sucking or blowing air into Silicone chambers. The main benefit is that there are less motors, cogs and mechanical parts and the Silicone arm can be a fraction of the weight of typical metal Robotics.


Image Above: Octopus Inspired Light Weight Soft Robotic Arm By Festo

The range for 3D printer filaments are constantly developing and growing. Some of which have impressive flexibility and rigidity. Other filaments can be printed as temporary scaffolding hold fast for the print, but can dissolve in water. So one could either print the elephant’s noses or the moulds for the Silicone air-tight form. Pneumatic Silicone Grippers at the tip of the trunk are very gentle with delicate components – there are numerous clips on You Tube picking up eggs without a single breakage. Therefore if one owns a 3D printer it should possible to make low cost robotic arms – but what if you don’t have such kit?


The softness of the armatures would make perfect sense in fitting out luxury panellised interiors such as our high-end Off-Grid (Go Anywhere) Pods. (Bed Snug: Image Below)

bedroom1 web copy

Some researchers have messed about with paper folding and creasing (through the art of Origami) and placed them in polythene bags (as below) – perhaps making them almost ‘throw-away robots’.


Others have looked into inverted compacted sock robots (as below)– that can travel some distances from an air source – perhaps perfect for pulling through electrical cables.


Image Above: Stanford Researchers Inverted Compacted Soft Robot

Perhaps the perfect mule for carrying the lightweight soft robotic arms is a butch drone (with large propellers) or human sized Ball-Bots. Again the internet is awash with hobbyists proudly presenting their self-balancing creations teetering aboard a basket-ball. The electronic spirit level constantly twitching to ensure the agile tower does not fall to the ground. You can push them and they will not fall, and they can squeeze through some narrow gaps. Again the electronics and circuit boards do not need to cost the earth, think more Raspberry Pi than the inside of a mobile phone. By being of similar stature to a human, the Ball-Bot could be directed by mimicking a human’s movement hundreds of miles away – Or perhaps somewhere else on the same site. Remember the aim of this blog is to establish ways to aid what is left of the UK based Trade Force based on site – but in an affordable way.


Image Above: Ball-Bot

Moving goods and tools around a site or multi-storey construction site interests me too. The likes of Bob-Cat have a remote control digger on the market, others have produced unmanned dumpers. Again I find the potential in the principle of the Acra hover board of interest. It’s 36 high powered fans could transport seven Plaster Board sheets or a couple of Substantial ‘Trades’ people across the site.


Image Above: Acra Hoverboard

There is a healthy selection of Motorised Wheel Barrows or Caterpillar tracked stair climbers which could transport goods around the site directed through digital instruction.

With hardware covered these devices need to be programmed as to what tasks to carry out. Free software such as Python can tell an arm to pick up a brick – nothing new there but what if the robot could recognise on its own initiative. If it could recognise a brick over say a car sponge without additional programming – wouldn’t that be something! Fortunately there are companies such as Tensor-Flow – an open source software library that will help machine’s understand shapes. It was developed by Google and is one of many launch pads into Artificial Intelligence that could help the Construction Industry. The next generation of BIM data will likely entail recognition parameters that should move onsite manufacturing forward in leaps and bounds.

There are other companies looking to approach on-site manufacturing in a different way. The Australian Company ‘RockHouse International’ for example has developed a range mobile pressing rigs that can convert sheet metal into beams, columns and studwork on site. Their system evolves around bolting the metal floors joists together to make the ground, first floor and roof study which collectively is no higher than the site operatives waist. Four jacks then raise all these plates to the appropriate height. The studwork is then installed from the inside. If Robots were to drive such machinery productivity of house build could be increased.



Images above: Rockhouse International – Mobile Pressing Rigs

I am aware that due to planning restrictions on-site construction can only occur during typical working hours. So perhaps the rigs and operative could be driving to pop-up factories for some night-shift production. Perhaps during the daytime the factory could sculpt the customized faces of our Bloom House – to produce in the darker hours the basic beam and column elements that make up standard Terraced boxes.


Image Above: The Customisable Faces of our Bloom Terrace Concept

Returning to the Robots recognizing the many parts of the jigsaw puzzle that make up an entire building – I am optimistic for making more interesting dwellings. Consider our Orbital House (Image Below) that is largely made up of CNC profiled ribs (from say the low-cost Maslow Saw) interconnected to create a strong and slippery shaped form. If the low cost Ball-Bots could assemble these, then the future is looking spectacular – who knows it might even change the image of construction.


In summary then on-site manufacturing is a ripe topic for conversation. So please come along to UK Construction Week 2018 (UKCW) at the NEC (Birmingham) on Thursday 11th October 2018 I will be giving a Seminar on ‘Robotic Buildings For All’

Venue: Infrastructure Hub |Hall 11 – 15:00 to 15:30

If you can’t make the 11th October, then I am also presenting on the other two days with different subject matter as described below:

Date: Tuesday 9th October 2018
Seminar: Bionic Buildings
Venue: Surface & Materials Hub | Hall 9 – 14:30 – 15:00

Date: Wednesday 10th October 2018
Seminar: Britain’s Hyper Filter & The New World’s Spine
Venue: Infrastructure Hub | Hall 11 – 11 – 11:30

Looking Forward to seeing your friendly faces there!



Graham has enjoyed three decades immersed in the World of Architecture with a third of his time spent housing people, a third making places of learning more engaging and the remaining time designing delights in the leisure, hospitality, branding and retail sectors.



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