The research project Mesh Mould successfully qualified for the final of this year’s Swiss Technology Award. The innovative building technology, which has been developed by an interdisciplinary research team of ETH Zurich within the framework of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication, promises to revolutionise the construction of steel-reinforced concrete structures through the combination of the two commonly separated functions of formwork and reinforcement.

The Swiss Technology Award is the most significant award for innovation and technology transfer in Switzerland. Organised by the Swiss Economic Forum AG, the highly coveted trophy honours the best technological innovations of start-ups, universities, technical institutions and established businesses in the three categories “Inventors”, “Start-Up” and “Innovation Leader”. The winners will be chosen on the 24 November 2016 during the Swiss Innovation Forum in Basel.

Saving of Material and Production Costs
This year, the Swiss Economic Forum AG received a total of over 50 applications. A top-level jury, consisting of experts from Swiss industry, politics and education, selected Mesh Mould as one of the three finalists in the category “Inventors”. Norman Hack, project leader of Mesh Mould, is extremely proud about the nomination: “My research team and I are very happy. All of us have put great effort in advancing Mesh Mould. The nomination underlines the great novelty value and market potential of our work”. In the conventional construction of reinforced concrete structures, the steel-reinforcement is surrounded by a material- and cost-intensive formwork which gives the concrete its final form. The new building technology Mesh Mould combines the two functions of formwork and reinforcement: “First, a steel-mesh is robotically fabricated based on a computational model. Thanks to the precision of the custom-designed end-effector used for the robotic fabrication process, literally every form can be achieved. Then, concrete is poured inside the mesh and a final surface finish is done. Thanks to the specific mesh structure and the particular concrete mixture, the concrete remains inside the mesh and does not run out. No separate formwork is needed, whether the target shape is of standard or highly complex nature”, explains Hack.

Democratisation of Bespoke Concrete Architecture
Today’s architecture is characterised by standardised concrete structures. This is largely due to the fact that the construction of complex concrete structures is very material- and cost-intensive. A good example is the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, says Hack: “Based on today’s means, the building was literally built twice – once in wooden formwork and once in reinforced concrete. As the wooden formwork for such a complex building has to be highly customised, it can only be used once. The consequence are tremendous production costs and material waste”. This is where the interdisciplinary research team consisting of researchers from architecture, robotics, materials science and structural engineering, sees the great potential of Mesh Mould: thanks to the combination of the two functions of formwork and reinforcement, material and construction costs can be saved. Unique reinforced concrete structures can be built without any additional effort. But the new building technology also has the potential to make the construction process of standardised concrete structures less material-intense and therefore more sustainable. Whilst today walls for example have a continuous thickness, with Mesh Mould, the thickness of a wall can vary over its whole length depending on the required load-bearing capacity of a specific section. “For us, this is a significant step towards a sustainable, digital building culture”, so Hack.

First Real-World Application in 2017
In 2017, the Mesh Mould technology will be implemented on the modular research and innovation building Empa NEST in Dübendorf as part of the NEST Unit of the NCCR Digital Fabrication. A Mesh Mould wall will be built directly on site by the NCCR Digital Fabrication’s construction robot In situ Fabricator and will serve as a main structural component of the three-storey building unit. The Mesh Mould research team is already looking forward to this first real-world application at 1:1 building scale.

You can download the PDF version of this press release in English and in German. For any further information and image material , please contact Tanja Coray, Communications Officer of the NCCR Digital Fabrication: communications@dfab.ch

Project images and videos can be found on the Mesh Mould project site.

For more information about the Swiss Technology Award, please visit the Website of the Swiss Innovation Forum.

Research program: National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication
Project leader: Norman Hack
Collaborators: Kathrin Dörfler, Dr. Jaime Mata Falcón, Dr. Nitish Kumar, Alexander Nikolas Walzer, Dr. Tim Wangler
Contributing professorships: Gramazio Kohler Research, Institute for Technology in Architecture, ETH Zurich; Agile & Dexterous Robotics Lab, Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Systems, ETH Zurich; Physical Chemistry of Building Materials Group, Institute for Building Materials, ETH Zurich; Concrete Structures and Bridge Design, Institute of Structural Engineering, ETH Zurich
Industry partners: Sika Technology AG, Noe Schaltechnik GmbH
Institution which launched the project in its first phase: Future Cities Laboratory, Singapore ETH Centre

Image credits: Swiss Innovation Forum
Image caption: Norman Hack, project leader of Mesh Mould.