METAL DESIGN BODIES
Article written for the ﬁrst symposium of metal design and handcraft “Iron camp”, Ybbsitz, Austria 2016.
When I think about metal, I have in mind some features like Malleability (the ability to be hammered or pressed without breaking or craking), fusibility (the ability to be fused or melted) and ductibility (the ability to be drawn out into wires). These are manipulability1 features, they give us the idea what we can do with the material in terms of transformations. On the other hand we can see metals through the physical phenomena such as electrical and thermal conductivity or in some cases magnetism. We could even go deeper in the understanding of the material within the chemical/physical dimension, with implication in nanotechnology and the idea of programmable matter2.
These considerations give me the possibility to distinguish different ways of transformation of the material, let consider them in two families: the first one where the hand and the machinery as an extension of the hand, are the control tools, the drivers. The second one, where the drivers are the interactions of physical conditions.
1 The humanization of machinery – The new CORPOreality3
Tools are extensions of our body that give us the opportunity to do things that otherwise we would not be able to do in the macro or micro scale, in terms of possibility, efficiency or precision. In their primitive form, tools are expression of our physicality: just imagine the hammer like a closed hand or pliers like the contraposition of thumb and index. Contrariwise, the machinery sons of the industrial era (to simplify), are out of the human scale: to increase productivity they become bigger or smaller and specialized (sophisticated). In this way they abstract the processes, they remove the process from the human body, obviously giving birth to other bodies. From the hammer that a hand could grab to a bigger one up to a press, from tools connected to the body (arm+tool) to tools disconnected to it (flat machines). This abstraction move away from human intuition and forces users to invest time to learn how to use them properly, to learn how to use new bodies.
Today, the most commercially successful products on the market are those that are designed around people naturally do things: the user experience is the key. Thus advances in robotics give us a chance to get closer (go back actually) to the freedom of movement and flexibility of the human body with its adaptability to different needs. So what we can see is a return on the human sphere, tools connected back to the body (arm/machines) with enriched capabilities in terms of strength, precision, and maybe with another level of motion4. So besides the heavy industry of the semi-finished products, we can see that the ecology of machinery is changing towards a humanization of technology.
The goal of replicating complex motion features undertakes many academic research5 and private companies such as Festo and Boston Robotics, investigating the motion realm of the human body and that one of interesting animals. To better understand where we are going, we can take in consideration also the data about sales increase in the main industry and the even more positive sales forecast for the next years6. In particular, we have recently seen the diffusion of 6-axis articulated robotic arms, from big (payloads of tons) to small size (payloads of kilos). For the small industry, we can consider this trend as a consequence of this search for flexibility. Take as an example the Opton’s T-WIN20 KDM, a robot bender that can feed in, twist, and bend pipes simultaneously. It is an evolution of traditional banding machines, with “human sensitivity”. It can do it because of its body, of its degree of freedom. What was done by insensitive machines (flat ones), limited in their actions, now could be done with an added sensitivity, thanks the fact that are sharing the sphere of movements of the human being.
An emerging group of designers and fabricators have begun to apply robotic technology in the pursuit of architecture, implementing them in a range of processes and scales. Coupled with computational design tools the technology is no longer relegated to the repetitive production of the assembly line, and is instead being employed for the mass-customization of non-standard components. We can find some examples in the investigations of Ammar Kalo and Michael Jake Newsum of Robotic Incremental Sheet metal forming. They developed a method for manufacturing parametric architectural skins, where the components could be custom made for specific conditions. Other interesting examples that can synthesize the relationship between the action of human hands and the robotic parallel, are the robot folding research lead by Gramazio&Kohler at ETH Zurich and the projects of the company RobotFold. What we can notice here in these cases, instead of a mould/press system, the robot are manipulating the sheets like hand can do it with paper. In this way the robot is a projection of the human body actions. The use of robotics in this way contributes to define a ROBOcraft aesthetic: the fact that robots are precise and they are not afraid about repetitive but different jobs, sustains an “atomization of the components” that means focusing on the relationship of connections between the parts: crossing, bundling, entagling, merging. Design is a key factor for the organization of the components in space, a crucial aspect to give specific features to the object. Design as a tool to manage information, developing proactive open processes as mediums between ourselves and the machines for the production and assembly processes.
This radical shift has been enabled by the recognition of robotic manipulators as “multi-functional” fabrication platforms, capable of being reconfigured to suit the specific needs of a process. So we can go beyond the use of semi-finished products such as sheets, pipes or wires and implement other ways of transformation, asking what could be the row material. Inspired by additive manufacturing techniques, the company MX3D developed a method where an advanced welding machine could 3D print metals in mid-air, without the need for support structures. With this technology is possible to realize cave spatial structures like the bridge designed by Joris Laarman, planned to be built in Amsterdam, and intricate mesh surfaces used in particular to manufacture a bench and a bike frame.
This “sensitivity” is going to grow and develop further in the future. We should experiment other ways to interact with our body, continuing what the history of art and science already did with the work of Stelarc or Kevin Warwick for example. In this direction, let’s see the interesting research of the visual artist Ilona Lénárd that together with Kas Oosterhuis, Ana Maria Anton and Serban Bodea, developed the robotic painting project titled “Machining Emotion”. The goal of this project was to establish a mutual relationship between human emotions and robotic machines initiated by fast and intuitive 3d sketches executed by the artists using a 3d digitizer and the leap motion controller. Again, time is mature to go deeper in the dialog between the body motion and the machine motion, to explore the contamination.
All these experiences are material to re-cycle7, to re-mix8, they could be the basis for creating intersections: let’s imagine to mix a Virtual Reality set, like in the video directed by Ashley Rodholm for the future of storytelling summit, october 2015, where the animator Glen Keane is drawing on air some of his Disney character, and the MX3D technology. The trend to transfer intuitive human mobility to machinery, is going to grow in augmented actions. Technology, in this way, as an extension of the body, becomes a tool of comprehension of the material: Imagine the implications of bending something with your body, to shape with a direct extension of your body something that usually it is not possible to manipulate. Thus, the return to the body is fundamental also to feed the creativity process. The use of CNC machines is a synonymous with precision, accuracy (obviously depending on tolerance), because the digitization of data allows a depuration of errors9. The codification of informations in one and zeros, finite entities, excludes the misunderstanding between one and the other. On the contrary, an analog system is by definition continuous, with infinite entities, and so any errors from “noise” in the system would accumulate. This infinite world of possibilities could contain something interesting, so the human factor could enlarge more the research sphere: the hand gives you the possibility to make mistakes, Computer Numerical Control doesn’t. Giving sensitivity means also that we can “teach” machines to make mistakes, so to explore unknown terrains.
2 Form in action
The environment that we place ourselves is a complex information system of chemical and physical relationships. Each structure is stressed in search of stability, to meet its energy requirements, within force fields that determine the changes in state or form. What emerges is an element which is expression of the process.The shape, in its stages of morphogenesis, produces and undergoes the changes, representable by means of force fields. To better face this approach, we can have a look to the work of Jólan van der Wiel, in particular “Gravity Stool”. In this case the designer took the magnetic quality of iron to free the form using magnetic fields as driving tools. A plurality of nested sets of intensity, ranging to alter the symmetry and stability of the initial system, are able to generate variation in a micro-level, giving to the object surface detail and complexity. Another example using composite materials with metal as a key element, is the project “Hot wire extensions” where studio Llio explores the potentials of conductivity to heat up to 500°C iron wire and let fuse a composite material around it. The wires are like trajectories that allow to define many typologies of connections depending on their spatial arrangement. Here we have a situation of shared control, where the sensibility is the ability to perceive, to understand and to drive the process. The experiment, the phase of understanding is crucial to define the borders in which is possible to act. There are many ways and resources to test this approach. In the You-Tube channel “The Backyard Scientist”, for instance, you can find some funny experiments easy to replicate. I was intrigued in particular by one using polymer water balls as the lost casting mold to create foam structures. Nice alternative to the industrial techniques using gas or foaming agent injections or difficult lost casting procedures.
The key point of these cases, is the understanding of the behaviour, the goal is to define the parameters able to drive the behaviour and give the possibility to let the material express the forces. What if we can program matter to act and react to specific conditions? Driving the digital concept to the physical world, we can consider to split things in smaller and smaller entities. Borrowing the idea of 2D pixels we can think 3D voxels able to describe three-dimensional objects, basically physical molecular building blocks similar to Lego. This shift in thinking about materials, has also other implications, like suggesting the possibility of recombination and the possibility to build materials with custom properties. Recent developments in the field of nanotechnology show a future in which materials are no longer static, but can be remodeled over and over again, something like the Kryptonian technology pictured in the sci-fi movie “Man of steel” or in a more extreme way like in the movie “Transcendence”. Some interesting projects are projecting us into this vision, for instance the tables designed by Joris Laarman, composed by thousand of small cubes that guarantee a high-tolerance and self-aligning assembly strategy. They are assembled with a soluble adhesive that guarantee to compose and decompose the whole, not only, the whole has a particular aesthetic related to the size of the component which allows us to talk about the resolution of the object.
Other investigations in digital materials are pursued at several University including MIT, where the Self-Assembly Lab, directed by Skylar Tibbits, focuses on self-assembly and programmable material technologies for novel manufacturing, products and construction processes. Also in this case, small components can fold and unfold into different shapes: simple movement at the scale of the single could give birth to complex behaviours at the scale of the whole. Intriguing experiments to incorporate the time dimension (transformation) into the things we build.
To better investigate the realm of the material, we have to use our body. We think physically, so the point is to expand it directly to give us the possibility to see things differently, from an augmented perspective. Our body is able to easily incorporate exogenous apparatuses, able to let us think process, and to do so we have to reinforce the idea of a “totalizing immersion”, a bodily experience able to activate our senses, but not only, able to refine them, able to expand them to new realms. To build new senses and new sensitivities, to bring back intelligence and sensitivity in our manufacturing processes and to bring back intelligence into the material itself.
1 Manipulation: from French manipulation, from manipule “handful”, from Latin manipulus “handful, sheaf, bundle,” from manus “hand” to move or control (something) with your hands or by using a machine. It is very important to remember the role of the hand as a tool to rearrange our environment.
2 According to Neil Gershenfeld, the revolution in Digital Fabrication is not additive versus subtractive manufacturing, but the ability to turn data into things and things into data: manufacturing processes in which the materials themselves are digital. Many labs are developing 3-d assemblers that can build structures, able to both add and remove parts from a discrete set, developing in this way, processes that can place individual atoms and molecules into whatever structure we want. These structures could have specific properties such as being good electrical conductors or magnets, giving the possibility to also 3-d integrate circuits into the final “system”.
Neil Gershenfeld, “How to make almost anything – The digital Fabrication Revolution” Foreign Affairs Nov/Dec 2012
3 CORPOreality, Corpo – reality. Corporeal, from Latin corporeus “of the nature of a body,” from corpus “body” (living or dead), from PIE *kwrpes, from root*kwrep- “body, form, appearance,” probably from a verbal root meaning “to appear”: the reality of the body.
4 I like to give shape to this idea using modern dance: when I saw for the first time the show of the dance Company Momix, choreographed by Moses Pendleton, I saw in real time this idea of movement expansion, where multiple human bodies were combined giving birth to different “creatures” with different bodies so able to express different motion skills, in other words, explorations about sensitivity.
5 In the last decade, in many architecture universities we saw multiply the number of digital fabrication laboratories using robotic arms alone or in combination. These robots are seen as flexible infrastructure, relatively easy to program, that can be equipped with custom made end-effectors.
6 According to the IFR (International Federation of Robotics – there will be a 15% industrial robot growth through 2018. 70% of those sales will be to users in China, Japan, the U.S., South Korea and Germany. China purchased 56% more robots in 2014 than 2013 of which approximately 17,000 were made by Chinese vendors. The IFR is forecasting Asian robot sales units to increase from about 140,000 to 275,000 by
2018, by far the largest and fastest growing marketplace in the world.
7 Mirko Daneluzzo, “Repetition as Variation” City Vision Dec 2012
8 Kirby Ferguson, “Everything is a remix”
9 Neil Gershenfeld, “How to make almost anything – bits and atoms” Foreign Affairs Nov/Dec 2012