Tim Lucas is a Partner at engineering firm Price & Myers, and a Lecturer in Structural Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London (UCL). Here he discusses the importance of research taking place at UCL’s new “Here East” facility and how it relates to the Institution’s Digital Workflows Panel.

I was closely involved with setting up the Design for Manufacture (DfM) Master of Architecture course at the University, which I now teach alongside Deputy Programme Director, Peter Scully, and Programme Director, Bob Sheil, amongst others. The Bartlett School is renowned for award-winning innovative research and our new “Here East” site in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has been founded to bring engineering and architectural research under one roof. Our focus is producing the kind of graduates that industry needs: engineers and architects who know how to collaborate and make best use of emerging technology to build the cities and structures of the future.

A number of departments – the Bartlett School, the Civil Engineering Department and others share the space at Here East. The idea is to encourage collaboration between departments, across different skill sets and specialisms – although that doesn’t prevent competition for space and resources!  Each department has its own focus, so the collaborative opportunities are there to be discovered rather than prescribed. The important thing is that we have lots of space and tools, and people thinking how to use them in a useful, productive way - where the design and production inform each other and create unexpected synergies.

One example is robotics: when tied to digital design processes they have the potential to make more efficient structures using less material, through more bespoke or additive fabrication that reduces the reliance on pre-rolled sections. Robotics also has the potential to fundamentally alter the balance of time and labour vs material use in the fabrication and assembly of structures.  

This is a really exciting area. Partial automation of both design and fabrication, letting scripts and robots to do the ‘donkey’ work of design and production, frees up engineers to think and work more creatively - knowing that we can deliver something that won’t hit the buffers when labour requirements are costed.  I think it will allow us to do things that we wouldn’t do now anyway because the time to do it manually (either in design or production) is too cost prohibitive.

In turn this makes the kind of research going on at Here East more important. In a way we all do research when we try out new things to solve a specific design problem, but great research by universities is necessary to understand and explore the potential of robotics and other future techniques and technologies, and also to develop applications from other industries in an engineering and architectural context.

The challenge we have when adapting technologies and methods from other industries, is that we produce bespoke and one-off objects, rather than lots of copies of the same thing (like say the auto industry). However, façades for example have lots of repetition and can use this technology readily.  We need to develop scripting software that makes it feasible to send lots of bespoke instructions to machines, rather than optimising machines for one production process.

The Institution’s Digital Workflows and Computational Design Panel has much the same philosophy as the Bartlett School: helping to encourage the kind of research and innovation industry needs, by helping to identify what aspects of digital manufacturing may be useful for structural engineers.  

We’ll aim to provide members with guidance through articles, lectures, notes and other resources over the coming years. This is an ever-evolving field that’s in its infancy, and it’s an exciting challenge to help structural engineers make best use of the opportunities available.

Read Tim's 2016 Viewpoint article on Digital Fabrication and Assembly.

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