The art of construction

From its formation in 2010, IndexLab set itself a mission to kickstart the industry into a new era of construction methods. Hearing that phrase, many people think of 3D printing, but IndexLab is thinking even outside this box.

A research lab based in Italy at the Politecnico di Milano, IndexLab is using art to push the boundaries of construction techniques, producing free-form sculptures, complex structures, façades and art installations using new tools and processes.

This focus on art underpins IndexLab’s entire philosophy of design for construction. Founder of IndexLab Pierpaolo Ruttico says: “Construction and art will increasingly become knitted together and aesthetics will bring link them. A building has to be beautiful first and then a way of building it in a sustainable way has to be found. It is always a matter of finding the balance between top-down and bottom-up design approaches.”

Such an attitude demands a willingness to go beyond conventional construction techniques – the methods IndexLab is investigating include rapid creation of polystyrene molds for producing mass customized elements.

ABB robots play a big role here, being used for shaping the molds. An algorithmic design approach generates complex geometries and translates them into instructions for the robot.

For IndexLab, the key benefits of using ABB robots and algorithmic programming are flexibility and adaptability, which have enabled the laboratory to realize its ambition of testing and creating structures with mass differentiation. ABB’s technical support has also been very valuable in helping the company get the most out of the robots and push what they are capable of to test radical new techniques.

The resulting products are used to demonstrate automated construction techniques to constructors and to help train the next generation of architects, engineers and builders about what can be achieved by combining robots and software to enable design for manufacture.

Founder of IndexLab Pierpaolo Ruttico says: “We went from polystyrene, to pair hot-wire cutting of foam with thermoforming, which allows complex shapes to be cut and then put together very fast with no waste. Robotic hot-wire-cutting and thermoforming is a process that is much quicker than milling, spray-coating and polishing. It is also much more sustainable, as we are basically dealing with polystyrene both for the mold and the plastic you are putting in, allowing complete recycling. Thanks to this method and the robot, it is possible to manage the continuous and systematic variation of the elements and achieve mass-customization in a cost-effective way.”

IndexLab makes widescale use of the flexibility of robots, using their pick and place abilities to prove concepts and then using them on building sites to construct facades.

The wide range of techniques employed by IndexLab include metal 3D printing, which it has found very useful in mass customized nodes. The method can be used to weld and manipulate beams – to which 3D printed parts can be added.

Printing on curved surfaces, working on structures that mix 3D printing with flat panels to allow complex geometries, robotic wood cutting and the use of advanced composites allowing the creation of customized structures are all in IndexLab’s skill set.

"Robotic fabrication has enabled a greatly expanded range of construction possibilities"

“Robotic fabrication has enabled a greatly expanded range of construction possibilities,” says Ruttico. “It can save time, money, materials and allows the creation of complex geometries. Though we must be clever – building an entire structure with 3D printing is probably a naïve concept and it is very slow if you want to make a large structure such as a bridge. I see the future as a lot of different companies producing 3D printed components that are then assembled on site.”

There remains a steep learning curve to climb if companies are to embrace robot construction, says Ruttico. “They simply don’t know that these possibilities exist. When they do see what’s possible, it helps to change their perceptions and in fact, we have seen more companies asking about using robots in construction.”

"Robots can bring the competitive advantage"

Ruttico sees universities as the driving force behind this type of research. “Construction companies are reluctant to do R&D,” he says, “and they also lack the technical skills to use robots. We are frequently asked what sort of people they need to hire – we reply, proactive, curious people, preferably with an engineering background. Robots require people to learn robots – then, robots can bring the competitive advantage that comes from a company having the ability to produce different things.”

The sustainability of construction is a growing issue, but it can mean different things to different people. Says Ruttico: “We can use materials like plastic if you recycle it, for example, using waste nylon from nets in the oceans to make new objects and put into the loop again.

“More and more architecture and engineering firms are looking for ways to make building structures lighter and more energy efficient. This is why wood will be more widely used in future, together with steels and concrete for reinforcement, depending on the height of the buildings. The challenge will be to find ways of producing hybrid structures with robotic systems.”

When it comes to the future of the industry, Ruttico estimates we will need at least one generation before we really start to see robots in construction. “The future will always include people as well as robots,” he says. “I don’t see a future where robots will do things autonomously, but where they work with people to make things better for everyone.”

Overall, Ruttico sees the future construction industry as one where robots and the techniques they make possible will cause employment to change: “There will be more engineers, more architects. And more artists.”

Robot benefits

  • Flexibility and adaptability, allowing the laboratory to test new techniques and materials to achieve mass differentiation
  • Technical support from ABB to help develop new techniques

IndexLab in brief:

  • A leading design and innovation research lab based in Italy
  • Conducts research, consultancy, education and artworks to promote and develop robots for use in construction


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