A helping hand, or arm

The Kuka HA 60-3 Automatic Scale Arm knows how to avoid hitting its head on the ceiling. It also knows where the ground is. It even knows its own dimensions.

But the arm is not impressive because of what it knows, but rather because of what it can learn and build in a matter of hours. When provided with a 3-D drawing, the robot can mill — cut away — an identical model or final product from any material. Its online manual, for example, shows students how it can carve a bust of Beethoven.

Robots in the basement of the art and architecture building. Joshua Rowley, manager of the fabrication labs and instructor, maneuvers the robot.
Raymond Carlson
Robots in the basement of the art and architecture building. Joshua Rowley, manager of the fabrication labs and instructor, maneuvers the robot.

The arm, purchased by the Yale School of Architecture in 2006, is one of several different computer-numeric-controlled (CNC) machines architecture students can use to build models or final projects. These machines not only represent a significant investment by the school, but they have also made the architecture school a leader among its peer schools when it comes to design fabrication, Director of Digital Media John Eberhart ARC ’98 said.

“There really is no other institution that has the range of full-scale fabrication equipment that we do exclusively within the School of Architecture,” he said.

The purchase of the arm and several other machines was made possible by a quarter-million-dollar anonymous donation in the spring of 2006, Eberhart said. The arm alone cost between $150,000 and $200,000, while the software cost $50,000, according to Joshua Rowley, an instructor and manager of the Fabrication Labs at the School of Architecture.

From bedmills to plasma cutters, the computer-run machines offer students the most up-to-date technology that even some architecture firms lack, Eberhart said. The architecture school has worked hard to offer its students the best resources when fabricating projects, and it has even established a fund exclusively for fabrication tools, he said.

high-tech training wheels

By offering the best technologies available, the school empowers students to create their best work, said John Jacobson ARC ’70, the associate dean of the School of Architecture.

“The agenda was to help our students,” he said. “They’re able to create things they could never have created with conventional tools.”

Bolted to a cement floor, the arm resides in a private room in the Art & Architecture building basement. While at rest, the arm is about the height of an average adult, but in just minutes, it can extend to a radius of nine feet. In fact, during construction of the A&A building, duct work above the arm had to be re-routed to avoid collisions.

Still, years ago, the arm never would have had a home in the A&A building. Comparable robots have existed for decades, usually on assembly lines in automotive factories. But recent advances in software technology have allowed such robots to mill individual architecture projects rather than just putting doors on new Hondas.

The School of Architecture’s robotic arm marks the “first advent” of such technological breakthroughs at a university, Rowley said.

The arm rotates on six axes, and at its tip is a space for different endmills — similar to router blades on a shaft, Rowley said. The arm selects endmills from a tool changer near its base and uses them to cut away at any raw material the student selects.

The beauty of the arm lies not only in its aesthetic elegance, but also in its capacity to create. Because it moves along six axes and can change endmills, the arm can cut away at objects with unparalleled precision. Its range of error falls within three to five thousandths of an inch.

The arm is advantageous for students because it allows them to work on other projects as the arm is milling, Rowley said, and also because it reduces human error. Still, students will still need to put on finishing touches themselves.

“Machines are not going to finish a project to completion,” Rowley said. “It will still take the hand of the student to bring it to the final stage.”

But the size of the machine and its ability to mill any material allow students to create final products, rather than just models of them. Because the arm is able to mill a wide array of materials and operates on a nine-foot axis, it can be used to help create final projects of varying sizes.

“We’re trying to move away from making just small-scale models,” Rowley said. “We’re trying to make it possible to make a full-scale version of something a student is interested in.”

To demonstrate his point, Rowley points to a chair in his office made from parts milled by the arm but perfected and pieced together by hand.

By building their projects in this manner, architecture students are able to work just as they would after graduation, he said.

“Part of the impetus for getting better equipment was to allow students to see how an object would be made in the real world,” Rowley said.

From models to the real world

Since 2000, the School of Architecture has purchased several CNC machines, including bedmills, a water cutter and a plasma cutter. In addition, the school has invested in six two-dimensional laser cutters and three three-dimensional printers, which can build small-scale models.

These purchases advantage School of Architecture students by giving them experience with up-to-date technologies before they begin jobs at architecture firms, Eberhart said.

“Our students are in demand with a lot of firms because [the firms] know we have this equipment and our students have this kind of knowledge and experience,” he said.

Still, the arm and other tools are significantly more advanced — and more expensive — than the three-dimensional printers, for example. As a result, students must be trained to use the different tools in the fabrication lab before using them.

But once students are trained, they have free range to use the different CNC machines, as long as they have signed up to use them in advance. School of Architecture staff and student experts are available to help with the work for the students.

Students using the CNC machines must not only be well trained but must also have a well-honed sense of intuition, Rowley said.

When using the arm, for example, students not only need to know which material to select but must also select the right path for the arm to cut along, he said. In addition, students must be able to ensure that all the machines move at the appropriate speed — so as not to damage the material being used, Rowley said.

Still, the arm itself features a number of safety measures. It can sense problems associated with heat, air pressure or resistance from the material. If it detects a problem, it will automatically shut itself off.

Even to an outside expert, the technology behind the arm and its use is impressive. Engineering professor Roman Kuc HON ’94, who specializes in robotics, praised the School of Architecture for using the arm in this way.

“It’s exciting for students,” he said. “Now that the students have the ability to design with 3-D tools, the extension of having a robot build the design removes some of the drudgery of building models.”

Architecture students have already begun to hone their skills with the arm as they have with the other CNC machines. Students teach workshops for using the different CNC machines, and a few, like Ryan Welch ARC ’10, have even begun writing software programs for the machines.

Welch, who works as a monitor in the Fabrication Lab, said the learning curve on the software for the different machines is steep.

“When you first try [the software] out, it can be pretty daunting,” he said. “But then you hit a threshold, and it opens up opportunities.”

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