For all of the innovation in digital design in architecture, and all of incredible machines we have at our disposal, why are we still sending some poor schmuck out on a line to do the actual construction?

Let me break it down this way: human labor is valuable for two reasons, and two reasons alone: brains and brawn.

As our species has become more technologically developed, however, we have created systems that have far exceeded our fleshy capabilities at either end of the spectrum.

No quantity of men could compete with the strength of 1,000-ton presses, or the reach of a crane. For goodness sake, John Henry worked himself to death trying to keep up with a steam-powered tinker-toy. We are squishy and pathetic.

And while our leading chess players are just barely edging out their super-computer counterparts, the ability of these machines to compute raw data has been putting our mushy melons to shame since their calculations dropped us off on the moon half a century ago. Today, in the instant it takes my cell-phone to calculate the stresses of a loaded beam, my brain hasn’t even had time to utter the inevitable “uhhhh” of confusion.

So it is clear that squishy humans have been bested by both electronic brains, and mechanical brawn. Why then are we still putting our incredibly fragile frames in harms way when it comes to construction? While a lucky few are privileged enough to sit at the end of a machine that offers a mechanical advantage, there are inevitably half a dozen workers waiting at the business end of the rig hoping not to get crushed. Despite advances in safety protocol, construction is still considered to be one of our societies most dangerous professions, largely because of the proximity to machines that show little concern for the squashability of the human physique.

good lord I want to ride in that thing.

The problem is that electronic brains and mechanical brawn have developed largely separately. In order for any of these systems to work in concert, we are wholly dependent on human labor to act as an intermediate. We’ve developed artificial brains and muscles, but we’re still standing-in as a sort of manual nervous system. If you think a manual nervous system sounds like a ridiculous concept, you may not be as dumb as your fleshy exterior lets on.

So how do we go about rectifying this situation? How do we excuse ourselves from being the increasingly vulnerable and incapable middle-men? How do we bring electronic brains and mechanical brawn together to create sentient entities that will relieve us of our laborious existence?

Okay maybe we’re not ready for that quite yet. But there are recent advancements that may remove laborers from harms way by automating the gap between digital design, and mechanical fabrication. Not surprisingly, it’s called digital-fabrication. And it’s digi-fabulous.

While digital fabrication has become prevalent enough that it is bordering on house-hold recognition, this is almost entirely due to rapid-prototyping machines that print small objects in media such as plaster and plastic. While these little robots are certain to amaze the un-indoctrinated,  their limitations  are immediately clear. They’re, well, tiny. So they make tiny things.

You are indeed a little teapot.

But some are daring to dream big. Some are willing to ask, “hey, why don’t we just print out whole buildings?”  Certainly there are those who have been posing this question for quite some time, but how many of these maniacs have been bold enough to pursue it?

Well, at least a couple. One of the most promising attempts is coming from a team at Loughborough University in the UK. They have developed a machine that doesn’t quite reach the building scale, but is well on its way. This system is a very literal translation of existing extrusion-type printers, with the primary inovations being scale and medium. The large machine is able to print concrete, but can only succeed when the consistency is very finely tuned. Too thin and it will not maintain the form required to continue building, too thick and it may not even extrude from the nozzle. Ideally, this technology would let you build complex freeform structures without any complex or expensive formwork, going straight from digital model to reality. Although quite impressive, current applications are very limited. You can see a video of their machine in action here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=-yv-IWdSdns&feature=endscreen

The team at Loughborough, checking a fresh print.

Another example would be Enrico Dini, and his oversized 3D printer. His machine works like existing examples that use a powder medium in a bed, and then print consecutive layers of binder to create structure. Again the primary innovation is scale. And as large as the machine is, it is still not large enough to print reasonably occupiable spaces. While impressive, it is very much an incremental step, and not yet disruptive to construction. You can see his machine here at his site: http://d-shape.com/

Enrico Dini, his machine, and his… egg thingy?

So while some rather bold fellows have begun the first large scale tests, we are still a great distance from robots printing buildings, and in the meantime many human laborers will continue to work precariously in harms way. This field deserves much more investment and attention, and will rely on significant innovation to bring about any plausible change. Currently these technologies are in the proverbial garages of America, only in the infancy of their development. Are these noble early adapters the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of this generation, on the verge of launching an epic societal shift? Or are they like the early adopters of flying cars, bolting wings to their vw beetles, hoping that the future is just around the corner? Only time will tell, but really, it sounds like a win-win situation to me.


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