Robots enable increasingly complex wooden constructions

A new construction method developed by Swiss engineers is using robotic arms to fabricate and assemble the wooden parts of buildings so geometrically complex they would previously have been impossible to construct using timber.

The researchers from science, technology, engineering and mathematics university ETH Zurich named their method Spatial Timber Assembly (STA).

The method claims to enable the development of longer lasting, robust buildings much more complex in design than enabled by traditional wooden construction. 

This would present architects with the option of using what is a relatively inexpensive material to develop an even greater range of buildings.

The researchers began by developing a computer-based design program to calculate the exact shapes, positions and angles of all parts necessary to create a geometric structure, highly rigid and with solid load-bearing capabilities. Using this program, a designer simply needs to decide on the shapes needed, and the STA program will make all necessary adjustments.

The team went on to develop an algorithm that enables precise positioning of all parts using specially designed and built robotic arms. This algorithm continually calculates the arms’ motions throughout every stage of construction until each part has been precisely placed. The process is entirely flexible, meaning it can be continually adjusted to meet any new requirements resulting from project changes.

Following this, human operators will bolt everything together by placing screws through the holes drilled by the machine earlier in the process. This is particularly significant, as the researchers claim humans would not previously have been able manage this element of the process with such precision, without significant effort.

As an additional benefit, the process does not require any of the metal plates and bolts that architects currently rely upon to reinforce beams in a traditional wooden construction, meaning significant savings on the costs of those parts.

The research team hopes its new technology and processes will close the gap between design, planning and execution. 

The next step is to apply the innovations practically, in the construction of a 1,076-square-foot, two-level home. Beyond this initial testing, the team will work with commercial partners to convince them of the advantages of adopting this system, with the ultimate goal of having it accepted as a viable, industry standard construction method.

One of the researchers, Prof Christophe Sigrist, will be on sabbatical later this year at the University of Tasmania.