A look into contemporary architecture reveals that many of the most innovative built works around the globe result from an increasing interest in exploring unique forms and constructive solutions that could be hardly conceived and materialized a few years ago. This global tendency has been supported by the use of CAD/CAM technologies and naturally have influenced the Portuguese context, which assists to some conflicts. On the design side, both Portuguese architects and contemporary buildings in Portugal show an increasing interest in exploring unique forms demanding customized material solutions (eg. Casa da Música, Vodafone HQ, Shangai Pavilion). However, on the building side, the national building industry is still ruled by mass-production processes based on standardization, which set strong limitations when facing complex design challenges. This confront becomes more problematic when, today, the current economical crises in the country is forcing this economic sector to internationalize their products and services and thus, compete with foreign modern companies. Thus, the Portuguese building industry competitiveness is more than ever tied with its capacity to innovate at the global scale, responding to contemporary non-standard design concerns. Refactoring their products and services to embrace flexibility, sustainability and customization seems the true key to strength the economy of this sector.
Facing this challenge, the Project looked for the most flexible digital manufacturing technology available today – Robotics – to investigate its potential to support non-standard design and construction in architecture. Developed and widely implemented in other industries (e.g. automotive, aerospace), robots are advanced computer-driven machines, which, unlike other CNC equipments, can carry multiple different fabrication actions (e.g. handling, milling, welding, folding…) in different materials sizes and shapes [Gra10]. By establishing an innovative Laboratory equipped with a robotic arm, this research project was be the first project of its kind in Portugal, and one of the very few similar initiatives in the world, currently emerging in prestigious architecture schools like ETHZ Zurich, MIT, GSD Harvard or Vienna TU [Bre12]. To achieve results with an international impact, the project was developed by a multidisciplinary team gathering architects, engineers (structural, electronic and computer science) and a mathematician, it counted with an international network of consultants, and grounded its identity in the Portuguese context.
This project’s mission was committed with a Research plan to promote local/global innovation through the following 3 paths:
- Applied Research – exploring robotic fabrication of complex geometries and variable customized assemblies employing Portuguese materials (e.g. cork, ceramics, wood);
- Applied and Historical Research – using robotic fabrication to rethink traditional construction methods and recover architectural patrimony/heritage;
- Experimental Research – conceiving, developing and testing an original concept for a new robotic fabrication system for prefabrication or on-site construction.