Imitation of Life

Imitation of Life

In September, 2014, we reported on a research pavilion created by the group at The Institute for Computational Design (ICD) and the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE) of the University of Stuttgart led by Prof. Achim Menges.   ICD/ITKE has been exploring bio-mimicry, investigating the design efficiencies already refined by evolution and trying to leverage them for structural purposes. The 2014 research pavilion borrowed from the structure of the elytra of beetle wings, the protective coating that gives them strength. Using two large robotic arms, the ICD/ITKE folks created a structure made by winding glass-fiber and carbon fiber filaments saturated with resin.

Now, a team including Menges, Moritz Dörstelmann, structural engineer Jan Knippers, and climate engineer Thomas Auer (all of ICD/ITKE) have extended this elytra research into a much larger installation in the John Madejski Garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Their Elytra Filament Pavilion, which opened to the public last week, marks the beginning of the V&A’s first-ever Engineering Season.

The Elytra Filament Pavilion is an irregularly-shaped canopy of hexagonal cells made of layered, criss-crossing filments of glass fiber and carbon fiber composites.  It was fabricated using the same process of two robotic arms working in concert, creating the cells by wrapping filaments around a temporary armature using a pattern derived from their elytra studies.  40 cells, and their support seven columns, were fabricated in the Stuttgart lab over a period of about four months.   Each cell weighs about 45kg.

The assembled pavilion weighs only about 2500 KG (5500 lbs) even though it covers an area over 200m2 (2150 sf)…  and it’s still growing.

The huge Kuka robotic arms that placed the composite filament in Stuttgart are now onsite in the garden, ready to grow the pavilion further. They are awaiting instructions. There are sensors in the filament structure that will monitor how and where the public interacts with the pavilion. That information will inform the continued growth of the structure, which the robots will perform “live and in person.” The installation will be on view, and growing, through November 6, 2016.

Menge’s ICD/ITKE group has utilized glass fiber and carbon fiber composites in several of their recent “research pavilions.” However, composites have not been the common thread in them. Rather, it is bio-mimcry, the emulation of natural structures. This new pavilion would appear to take the concept to a new level. A structure that grows in response to the way it is used mimics not only a biologic engineering, but also evolution’s long-term method.

The versatility of composites has, apparently, lent itself well to bio-mimicry  (even though the 2016 research pavilion is not composite, but wood).  In this extended realization at the V&A Museum, the nature of FRP is central to the execution.  One of the unusual properties of the material is it’s ability to grow “organically,” that is, to be added onto in a way that is structurally indistinguishable from its original fabrication.  The robots can keep on winding, building more of it as needed, and it is all structurally “equal.”

from the ICD website:

Fibre composites are the building systems of nature. Most load-bearing structures in biology are fibrous systems, in which the fibre organisation, directionality and density is finely calibrated with the occurring forces. The resulting high level of morphological differentiation and related resource efficiency is emblematic for natural structures. The biomimetic principles of using “less material” by having “more form” have been investigated for several years by the project team, and they directly influence the conception of the installation’s structure.

The fibrous composite structure of the installation only consists of two basic cells, the canopy cells and the column cells that interface between the inhabitable ground and the canopy, which is also equipped with transparent roof panels. Both cells are made from the same load-bearing fibre material: transparent glass fibres and black carbon fibres. The production itself is an innovative robotic winding process developed by the project team, which in contrast to most other composite fabrication processes does not require any mould, and thus reduces waste to a minimum. To make each cell, a robot winds resin-saturated glass and carbon fibres onto a hexagonal winding tool. In this process, the transparent glass fibres form a spatial scaffold onto which the primarily structural black carbon fibres are applied, as they offer significantly higher stiffness and strength than the glass fibres. Once the robotic fabrication is complete the composite material hardens and the winding tool can be taken out and reused. Despite the similarity in basic make-up, the robotic fabrication process enables an infinite range of morphological permutations of the cells.

To learn more about this fascinating project, visit the ICD University of Stuttgart and the Victoria & Albert Museum websites.

Images courtesy of the V&A Museum