Robotics enhances architecture courses

Robotic technologies at the School of Architecture can create exquisite models quickly, but are still cost-prohibitive for many students.
Robotic technologies at the School of Architecture can create exquisite models quickly, but are still cost-prohibitive for many students. Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

At the School of Architecture, robots are changing the way students approach the design process.

In the school’s fabrication labs, located in the sub-basement of Rudolph Hall, architecture students have access to a wide range of robotic technologies — from computer numerical control (CNC) tools and waterjet cutters to laser scanners and 3-D printers. The most well-known of the machinery is the Kuka HA 60-3 Automatic Scale Arm. When the school purchased the robotic arm in 2006, Yale was the first university to own the device. Now, architecture programs across the country are investing in robotics as a means of revolutionizing the design and construction process. Last December, the school acquired a cost-effective 3-D printer, a technology that will make the benefits of robotics accessible to a much wider range of students, said John Eberhart ARC ’98, School of Architecture digital media director.

Taylor Dansby, an instructor in the fabrication lab, said the proliferation of such technology is a double-edged sword.

“Robots are one of the best ways to talk about the relationship between reality and simulation,” Dansby said. “At the same time, reliance on technology can create lazy decision-making.”

Dansby pointed to the school’s 3-D printers, which spit out successive layers of material to transform computerized designs into fully-formed models. Before last December, all the printers were high-quality and high-cost: the Dimension printer, which cost $40,000, requires students to pay $200 for each model printed. The end products are constructed from high-quality plastic, but the machine’s costs makes it inaccessible to many students, Eberhart said.

Eberhart noted that the price of high-quality models can place some students at a disadvantage, adding that he hopes this will change as companies develop cheaper methods of production.

“While it’s amazing that we have access to all these machines, the expenses can be very prohibitive, particularly for undergraduates,” architecture major Matthew Claudel ’13 said.

Late last year, the school acquired a MakerBot — a 3-D printer that spits out miniature models for $24 apiece. Whereas the professional-grade printers were used almost exclusively to represent final designs, students can use the MakerBot to experiment with works-in-progress.

“Students can now see their designs in 3-D, which allows them to go back and make changes before their final critiques,” Eberhart said. “The MakerBots have facilitated a quicker feedback loop.”

Due to high demand for the MakerBot during exam season, students must submit requests one or two weeks ahead of time in order to have their designs processed. Eberhart added that the school hopes to have a “Printer Farm” set up by this summer, which will house 8 to 10 low-cost printers in the same room, allowing students to submit prints and retrieve their products with ease.

Bobby Cannavino ARC ’14, a monitor in the imaging labs, said the emergence of robotic technologies geared toward architectural design raises questions about how methods of construction might change in the future. The level of complexity and detail with which robotics allow architects to create designs could affect the way they think about buildings, he said.

When considering the impact 3-D printers may have on the design process, Dansby emphasized the need for students to remember that they are only a means to an end — “just one tool in a large collection” — rather than a shortcut to the finished product. Claudel said technology presents a threat to the “investigative process” of architecture.

“It’s sort of dangerous to rely too much on technology because there is the temptation to make a really complex file on the computer and then think that it will be printed exactly how you want it to be,” Claudel said. “It’s liberating, but you have to be careful that it doesn’t start to define your creativity.”

While students are not required to use the machinery for their mandatory coursework, some professors in elective courses have designed their curricula around the growing stock of digital technologies. In Assistant Dean Mark Gage’s class, “Disheveled Geometries,” students are encouraged to use robotics in their exploration of form.

One undergraduate and two professional students interviewed said since the school only began purchasing robotic machinery in 2000, learning how to use these new and complex technologies remains challenging. Dansby said he hopes the technical knowledge will spread through word-of-mouth as he continues to give tutorials to a small group of students who can then share their expertise with peers. Sarah Gill ARC ’13 said the slow transfer of knowledge stems from the limited amount of staff devoted to managing the technology.

“There is only one Taylor [Dansby],” she said.

The Yale School of Architecture bought its first three-axis CNC mill in 2002.

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