(This is Part 1 of 3. The succeeding parts will appear in the two coming weeks.)
This year, ACMA (the American Composites Manufacturers Association) issued a challenge to advanced architectural students. Five schools were invited to participate, and four actually submitted entries, fifteen teams in all. The projects they submitted represent very innovative thinking and ingenuity, and a lot practical R&D, both digital and physical. This is original research that breaks important new ground. Some of the projects and processes are at the cutting edge of composites technology.
We recently had the opportunity to interview the three teams from UCLA that entered the competition, to learn about their projects and find out what they think about the future of composites.
(Note: in transcribing this exciting session from recordings, I have taken some liberties to make the verbal flow more readable. As is always the case in off-the-cuff discussions, nobody spoke in complete sentences. The ideas they were expressing were sophisticated and complex, despite the fact that some of the students are not native English speakers. So, I want to apologize to them if I have misrepresented what they said.)
The Suprastudio program at UCLA, taught by Julia Koerner and architect/designer Greg Lynn, has been focusing on composites for the past four years. They have held a series of hands-on workshops with experts such as Bill Kreysler (Kreysler & Associates), Rick Pauer (Polynt), and Neil Smith (Composites One), where they learned about digital fabrication for molds, hand lay-up, vacuum bag infusion, and more. The result is that a group of M.Arch II students have learned about the architectural application of composites in a holistic way, where design and fabrication are integrated.
The program recently moved into new digs away the main UCLA campus, in an industrial corner of West Los Angeles, a suitable site for their two large industrial robot arms.
The robots are starting to help the students redefine the future of architecture.
This year’s studio, called Animated Fibers, took their research in that very new direction. “This year was the first time we included the robotics technology,” explains Koerner. “In the past we always focused on very complex three-dimensional formwork done with molds. During the last workshop, Rick, Neil, Bill, Greg and I discussed what else could be done with the robotic technology. Neil Smith and Bill Kreysler said, Why don’t you use the infusion technique with the vacuum bag process? They had shown it to us during the workshops, but we never really explored it further than one-off molds in a vacuum bag, sort of like the industry uses in boat hull manufacturing or wind turbine manufacturing. So we said, Wouldn‘t it be interesting to take the mold away and make a vacuum bag and use the robotic technology as a moving jig? And that was really the starting point where Animated Fibers came from.”
They were invited to join the ACMA challenge, and developed three projects that don’t just break the mold, they ignore the mold completely.
“Skin and Bones”
Team: Ammar Palgharwala, Jorel Sanchez Soto, Luis Ochoa, Lyo heng Liu, Pegah Roshan, Richard Ruiz, Yuchen Liu
Skin and Bones was an exploration aimed squarely at the question of eliminating molds from the panel forming process. It was originally conceived as a large-scale cladding panel, later modified to a rainscreen that might shield a glass façade. The prototype they produced, 6 feet high, is just a hint of the real concept: a mega-panel several stories tall.
“The idea is really simple,” explains Lyo heng Lui. “By ‘bones’ we mean the jig that we used, mounted on the robot, to form the undulation on the surface [the skin]. It would actually become an integrated part, an embedded structural element, in the final product.”
The essence of their idea was to use a rigid framework of intersecting ribs, pressed onto the flat fiberglass during infusion and curing, to make that surface three-dimensional. This would speed up both prototyping and production, eliminating the long, wasteful process of mold-making.
In their initial, smaller scale experiments, they created a frame structure of intersecting lines (not a perimeter frame), made of balsa. They made a multi-layer infusion package of fiberglass fabric and soric, and included the frame as the top layer, inside the vacuum bag. The bag was placed under vacuum and infused with resin, and then allowed to cure.
“Originally,” relates Ammar Palgharwala, “the idea was that w
e wanted to trigger shape-warping and create the ridges using the frame itself. This was more like an idea where we could create different gradients of shapes. In the prototypes, when we infused the balsawood inside the bag, the balsa caused the panel to warp and create the undulation by itself.”
“From this,” adds Jorel Sanchez Soto, “we figured out that when everything is constrained, and started curing, the material started warping along the balsa wood without the need for pressure.”
It wasn’t all engineering, though. Aesthetics was always the driver. The desire to warp the surface as its primary visual characteristic was essentially aesthetic. But, because they were both designing and fabricating, they saw a way to achieve it that also provided structural support.
Then, they started removing sections from the soric, opening up the spaces between the ribs, areas that became translucent in the cured panel, creating large windows in the facade.
(They cut the soric windows on the CNC router, a clever production method. It is also, ironically, the main process usually used to make molds, the time-consuming step they were trying to get away from.)
The initial panels were about 12 x 18 inches. When they tried to increase the scale, they ran into the limits of their equipment. “The size and stretchability of the bag that we had restricted us from putting the frame inside the bag,” recalls Jorel. “It was about three inches high.”
“Because of the material constraints that Jorel was discussing,” says Ammar, “we decided to go with a jig method.”
The jig was made of plywood strips instead of balsa. They referred to it as ‘the waffle.’ The infusion package had all the layers of fiberglass and soric in the vacuum bag, but the waffle was kept outside the bag. The plan was to place the jig on the top surface of the bag, and have the robot apply pressure during the entire curing process, pressing the lines of the waffle into the panel from outside the bag.
This was a compromise of the true concept, which was still, as Jorel put it, “to have everything in the bag, so when you infuse the part, you have the structural support, the anchors that we later developed, etc.” all integrated in one shot.
“In order to have those ridges and those creases,” explains Jorel, “you need to have something underneath that will morph along with it. If you don’t have anything that supports the other places [between the jig lines], it will just…” and he gestures with his hands, a hammock curve… “it will become a different shape.”
They placed the bag on a bed of resilient foam for support. Then it was infused with resin, the jig was placed, and pressure was applied across the top by one of the big robot arms. Once the package cured, they took it out of the bag and attached the plywood jig into the creases in the panel as structural reinforcement.
“The first large scale prototype,” continues Jorel, “we just applied pressure, just pushed down as if it was a press. We figured out that wasn’t the best idea. The bag started giving up and it was almost to the point of breaking. A lot of ridges and wrinkles started to appear. For the second one, we knew we had to distribute the pressure, not evenly, but more pressure in the lower points of the frame and less in the upper ones. That’s where the robots were useful, because you could just tilt the robot, you could reconfigure it.”
“I think our final goal,” adds Lyo “is actually to try and use the precision of the robot to create a variable amount of pressure at specific points.”
“That’s one of the ideas,” puts in Jorel, “how do you take this to a mass production thing? You just have two robots pressing against it. Since we’re thinking of having everything embedded in the bag, once it’s cured you take it out, put another one in, press, cure, take it out…”
“We were also thinking about having two robots pressing vertically,” says Lyo. Their experiments with orienting the bag vertically showed a propensity of the resin to go with gravity and pool at the bottom. They found a solution for this, but it ended up requiring more material, so they went horizontally.
Lyo also points out that the panel is a sandwich system with high structural value. “That’s the idea behind our panel, to make it work like an I-beam. The waffle frame essentially is just like separating two layers of fiber glass. Right now it’s a post processing procedure, but what we want is to have the waffle frame with layers of fiberglass back and front, to work as a single panel.”
Skin and Bones won Honorable Mention in the ACMA competition.
It is worth pointing out that as far as we know, nobody else is doing this. This is an original method for producing an architectural panel. These seven grad students are almost certainly the world’s leading experts in this composite fabrication technique. They are integrating design, engineering, process development and fabrication into a single pursuit, which is a very unusual approach for architecture.
It is also worth pointing out that they have graduated school now and are looking for jobs.
NEXT WEEK: Two more amazing projects!
Images by Steven H Miller, or courtesy of UCLA, as noted.