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New Robot-Fabricated Building Material Is 100 Times Lighter Than Brick

The Elytra Filament Pavilion is made from a glass and carbon fiber filament that mimics the shell of beetle wings, and no two elements are the same.

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This week, the Victoria & Albert museum in London unveiled the robot-fabricated Elytra Filament Pavilion to open the museum's first ever Engineering Season, a series of exhibitions that celebrate the "‘unsung heroes’ of design." The pavilion is made from a new building material that's inspired by the structure of the elytra, a hard shell that protects the wings of beetles. It's a filament that combines glass and carbon fiber and is at once extremely lightweight and incredibly strong.

The Elytra Pavilion is the work of a multi-disciplinary team from the University of Stuttgart that is lead by experimental german architect Achim Menges and includes architect Moritz Dörstelmann, structural engineer Jan Knippers, and climate engineer Thomas Auer. By the time they submitted the proposal last year, the team had spent three years studying elytra fibers in an effort to mimic its properties for building material in architectural structures.

The filament they developed is a mix of glass fiber and carbon fiber. The material is woven together by two Kuka robots into hexagonal cells that make up the structure. "The real novelty of this project that’s never been tested on this scale before is that we don’t use a mold to create the fibers," Menges says. Rather, "we used the materiality of the fiber to inform the structural components."

In other words, the design and engineering processes are inseparable. The structural integrity of the pavilion informs the design of each individual component, which in turn determines the strength of the structure. Menges and his team developed a robotic fabrication process whereby two Kuka robots wind the resin-saturated glass and carbon fibers around a steel tool that looks like a hexagonal framework. The robots are constantly being fed real-time data from sensors that monitor the structural loads and stress that the canopy is experiencing at that given moment.

Based on that information, the robot determines the geometry of the hexagonal cell, so that no two building elements turn out exactly the same. "Each has a specific individual fiber arrangement, fiber geometry and orientation that corresponds to the structural loads the canopy is experiencing," at the time it was made, says Menges. Once the fibers harden to the point that they are stronger than the steel framework, the framework can be collapsed and removed.

Even more incredible? The sensor monitoring the structural loads and feeding information to the robot is the fiber itself. When light travels through the glass fiber, a computer-controlled system checks whether the fiber is stretched or contracted. That information is then calculated to understand what sort of strain the structure is experiencing, and is reported to the robot.

"The really exciting aspect for me is that it's neither an engineering aesthetic nor is it merely designed," says Menges. "It’s really the synthesis of on the one hand of being a very expressive piece of architecture, and on the other hand being an extremely materially efficient and lightweight system."

To demonstrate just how lightweight, Menges compared the Elytra Pavilion to the brick facade of the V&A museum. The entire 2,000-square-foot pavilion comes to roughly 2.5 tons, the same weight as just 20 square feet of the brick wall behind it. The filament is 100 times lighter than the brick.

Over the six months that the pavilion will be up at the V&A, it will continue to grow, with the Kuka robots making appearances during select times so that visitors can see the construction. Besides the fiber optical monitoring, the pavilion's creators are also monitoring the environmental conditions—temperature, moisture, and so on—and the way that visitors engage with the structure.

Menges considers the pavilion to be a kind of living laboratory for their ongoing research into elytra-inspired material—and if it's successful, you might start seeing more robot-constructed, self-monitoring structures around. The immediate goal is to build similar canopies for green urban spaces, but longer-term, Menges says he can see it being used for "larger-scale lightweight building envelopes," like a stadium roof.

The Elytra Filament Pavlion will be up at the V&A through November 6, 2016.

All Photos (unless otherwise noted): © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Slideshow Credits: 01 / NAARO; 02 / NAARO; 03 / NAARO; 05 / NAARO;

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