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Robot-built pavilion launches V&A engineering season

The Victoria and Albert Museum today unveiled a robot-built fibrous pavilion to mark the launch of its new season of engineering. 

A robot from the University of Stuttgart, Germany, fabricated the 200m2 Elytra Filament pavilion, which is influenced by biomimicry.

Lightweight construction principles found in nature inspired its design and construction, in particular the fibrous structures of the forewing shells of flying beetles known as Elytra.

“The fibres within the shell are continuous between the upper and lower sides – something you would not necessarily do in construction,” said experimental architect and one of the team behind the structure Achim Menges. “That’s one of the reasons why the structure is so lightweight and so strong at the same time.”

“All the fibres are continuous, so one element is wound from one continuous fibre. Initially glass fibre as the scaffold and then the carbon fibre is the actual load bearing system.”

A Kuka robotic arm – normally used in factory automation – wound resin soaked glass and carbon fibres onto a hexagonal scaffold. Softer (white) glass fibres were installed first, followed by the stronger (black) carbon fibres, which when cured can take compression forces. Each element is different but on average one hexagonal section takes three hours to fabricate.

Each of the 40 hardened elements, weighing around 45kg each, were then assembled on site to create the canopy, which sits in the museum’s John Madjeski Garden.

However, the structure is not static and the installation contains the robotic arm that built the first stage. This now continues to fabricate segments that will be added to the structure while insitu. Decisions about where to add new elements will be informed by data on how visitors use and move around the pavilion as well as structural information, gathered partly by fibre optic sensors.

A Kuka robotic arm that built the first stage is now contained in the V&A installation. This continues to fabricate segments that will be added to the structure while insitu. Decisions about where to add new elements will be informed by data on how visitors use and move around the pavilion as well as structural information, gathered partly by fibre optic sensors.

 

“Every element is different and what is also very interesting is that these elements are not only the load bearing structure but they also have the capacity to sense, for example, the stresses that they experience, such as temperature,” said Menges.

The team behind the pavilion stressed that it was a continuing research project.

Designed by Menges, structural engineer Jan Knippers and climate engineer Thomas Auer alongside the university’s Institute of Computational Design and Institute of Building Structures and Building Design, the team developed the fabrication technique over several years.

The 2.5t modular system is lightweight but strong. “This is a very robust system with a high level of longevity, you could easily expect this to last 50-plus years,” explains Menges.

The team is now exploring what new materials could be used in this fabrication process and beyond this installation, suggested that the research could be scalable.

“Here we conceive it as a kind of future urban green space that could migrate through the city,” said Menges. “But these are really high performance materials, so you could envision that this becomes a long spanning roof such as a cover for a stadium.”

Engineering Season

Today’s unveiling of the pavilion marked the launch of the V&A’s Engineering Season, which runs until 6 November and features the first major retrospective exhibition on Ove Arup. The exhibition is called Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design, which begins on 18 June.

The museum said engineers were the ‘unsung heroes of design’.

“The V&A Engineering Season is a clear statement in our renewed interest in industrial design and the engineer,” said V&A director Martin Roth. “It builds on our industrial design heritage and reflects the crucial role of engineering in the development of the V&A.” 

 

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