Wednesday, July 12, 2017

How to Reuse Materials in Architecture with Help From Robots

Normally I don't write about this sort of topic, instead preferring slightly more serious subjects, but a new Sketchup plugging, Trussfab, caught my eye, and I've only now had time to look into the technology further. The research project aims to combine several technologies – 3D printing, structural optimization, and construction tracking – to build pretty much whatever you can imagine out of recycled/reclaimed plastic bottles. I found the playfulness of the project's aims really engaging. My creative side sees many useful applications for theses types of structures, all the while putting an exclamation point behind the awesomeness that is sustainable design.

I don't think it occurred to me that such a recycling program was ever executable, which I guess is what prompted me to learn more. Most of the process will be familiar to causal Sketchup users, and the plugin allows specially created forms in the shape of tetrahedrons and octahedra to be placed by users. The program keeps track of all the modularity for you. The plugin also has a built-in structural analysis tool which warns users about possible weaknesses in the design. The last step is to fabricate the connectors. Again, computation to the recuse. With another set of analytical tools the program figures out all the needs for hubs and connectors and outputs them to the 3D model file format of your choice for 3D printing. Installation is a breeze because the program tracks all the pieces and prints a unique ID on each. Below attached is a time lapse from last month's CHI'17 robots conference in Denver, CO. and shows how the structure was built and fills the space. 

In an effort to make architecture seem more dangerous and alluring, I guess we should point out some of the things to be careful of if attempting a plastic bottle truss project:
  1. Because of the inherent lightness of plastic bottles, there is little risk of severe injury or damage if a structure happens to topple over during construction. However, that is not to say there isn't a point where its possible to build a structure so large failure would be catastrophic. All that to say there is a point in these projects where an engineer's services will definitely need to be engaged. 
  2. Reclaiming a product for another use can absolutely be put in the win column. However, it's important to remember plastic is a diabolical substance, literately saving lives in certain surgical situations, but at the same time also slowly poisoning the environment. These projects don't so much as stop that process but hold it off. I think many are starting to make better long-term choices about plastics, but there's a heck of a lot in the environment now or on its way there directly, which I had no role in putting there. And while I'm not placing blame on whoever thought it was a good idea to just allow ships to toss there garbage overboard, nor do I really have a good idea about what to do about it. (But I would plead we please leave some fish in the ocean for my grandchildren.)
The connection between these types of applications and Calgary's Beakerhead events or any world engineering festival is easily made. This program so greatly lowers the threshold for constructibility on these types of structures that it effectively gives a much larger population access to this technology. This is a bit of a double-edged sword in and of itself. While these sorts of projects popularize and demystify the field of engineering for students, the ease from which these structures can be built and made to look infinitely complex can dilute their artistic impact. Hence the important role of architectural criticism in all this; to be always pushing for a deeper meaning and good designI also wouldn't count out some innovative uses for this type of technology in regards to low-cost structures like temporary or emergency shelters. The world is so big that I have no doubt creative people will look at this tool chain and imagine completely novel applications that haven't been considered yet.

No comments: