During the ETH Zurich Foundation’s “front-line visit”, representatives of the construction industry and the research domain discussed the potential of modern robots for the construction sector. It was concluded that, although the building site is still some way off, the potential is already immense today.

“Digital fabrication in architecture – Will robots build for us in the future?” – this question, formulated in a deliberately provocative way, was what the ETH Zurich Foundation placed at the heart of its “front-line visit” on the 6th of March 2015. As the host of this year’s event, the NCCR Digital Fabrication was given the opportunity to present its research and to discuss it with industry representatives.

In their input presentations, Lino Guzzella, President of ETH Zurich, and Matthias Kohler, Director of the NCCR Digital Fabrication, agreed that “the construction industry is lagging behind technological development”. The figures from the Federal Statistical Office show that they are right: while work productivity has been significantly increased in related sectors (such as the production industry, for example) over the past 20 years, it has stagnated in the construction sector during the same period.

Intelligent, interconnected and collaborative

However, according to experts from science and industry, we have now reached a turning point. “The new generation of industrial robots is intelligent, interconnected and collaborative,” explained Remo Lütolf, Managing Director of ABB Switzerland, during the panel discussion that followed the presentations. As a result, this technology is now also of interest for applications in the field of architecture, as Kohler demonstrated on the basis of examples from practice and research.

Nevertheless, there are not any “robots for the construction industry” just yet. “Standard industrial robots are too heavy for the building site and have insufficient load-bearing capacity,” explained Patrick Suter from Erne AG Holzbau. Accordingly, customisation was necessary in order to develop the robotic production facility that this company is currently using for prefabrication of the roof for the new Arch_Tec_Lab.

The building site as a playground for roboticists

The experts in attendance also confirmed that such customised robotic production facilities for prefabrication had the most potential with regard to the relatively near future. However, at least from the researchers’ point of view, taking the step from here to the building site is already highly interesting today: “As an intermediate world between the laboratory and the chaotic everyday environment, the building site is the ideal ‘playground’ for roboticists,” declared Assistant Professor of Robotics Jonas Buchli from the NCCR Digital Fabrication, as he explained his fascination. “To date, the world has been built for the robots. The next step, is that the robot adapts to its environment,” said Buchli.

The closing question was “How will the building site look in 2025?”. Balz Halter from Halter AG claimed that dramatic changes are not to be expected. With this comment though, Halter was not referring to technological development at all, but to the construction sector itself, which he confirmed as being highly “resistant to innovation”.

Research driven by architecture

Halter is convinced that if anything is to change, it is necessary to start with the economic processes. However, Buchli added that easier means of operation are also needed, and that a lot of research is still necessary in this area. For Suter though, one thing is certain: “Research and industry can already do a lot more than is perceived in society.” Thus, Suter believes that, to no small extent, the potential of the NCCR Digital Fabrication resides in the fact that its research is being driven by architecture.

Finally, during live demonstrations in the research laboratory, the guests were able to find out about the perspectives that open up when architects and roboticists get the opportunity to work together. According to the young team of researchers, their “In-Situ Fabricator” will already be able to take its first “tentative steps” outside the laboratory this summer.