Academics are advancing digital construction technology—with help from robots

To explore the possibilities of digital construction technology, one German university is building a futuristic test site on campus—led by a robotics-obsessed professor/architect.

Sigrid Brell-Cokcan poses with a robotic arm

Friederike Voigt

April 9, 2020

min read
digital construction technology robots shown in a warehouse
The Center Construction Robotics was established in 2018 to research robotics in architecture. Image courtesy of Friederike Voigt.

How does one of Germany’s most important training centers for engineers, architects, and computer scientists celebrate its 150th anniversary? By adding a futuristic building site to test new digital construction technologies under real-world conditions, of course.

RWTH Aachen University, part of the German Universities Excellence Initiative, marks its sesquicentennial this year, and Austrian architect and professor Sigrid Brell-Cokcan is one of the driving forces behind the innovative building project. Brell-Cokcan has been involved from the beginning, when she was still working as an architect for internationally renowned firms such as Coop Himmelb(l)au and Bollinger + Grohmann on projects including BMW Welt in Munich and the Kunsthaus Graz art museum in Austria.

Brell-Cokcan has witnessed architecture’s digital transformation and began working with robots more than 15 years ago. In 2010, she founded the Robots in Architecture association, the world’s largest creative network to promote industrial robots in architecture, design, and art.

Brell-Cokcan, now director of Individualized Production at RWTH Aachen University, hasn’t lost her connection to the industry. Since the foundation of the Center Construction Robotics on the RWTH campus in 2018, she has been researching new construction robotics technologies with undergraduate and postgraduate students and European industrial partners. In February 2020, Brell-Cokcan and her colleagues broke ground on a new building site: an open-air, 100,000-square-foot area that will become a testing ground for making construction more efficient and sustainable.

“The site will be digital and networked,” Brell-Cokcan says. “We want to research assistance systems that allow people to concentrate on the essential elements of their work to make construction safer and more innovative, as well as increase the attraction of the profession itself.” This vision will include an outdoor maker space comprising 24 construction containers, which will be made available to established companies, start-ups, public institutions, and research institutes.

The site will use digitalized logistics to organize construction sites, solving problems such as misplaced tools, incorrect parts delivery, and missing materials. Additive manufacturing is another major area of research at the center; students have won prizes for 3D-printing projects designed there.

digital construction technology piles of concrete for additive manufacturing
Additive manufacturing is one of the main areas of research at the center. Image courtesy of Friederike Voigt.

Brell-Cokcan also hopes the site will help suppliers from other industries recognize the potential for construction. Although suppliers in Germany mainly serve the automotive industry, the expertise is transferable.

The university has partnered with established industrial companies such as Porr, Liebherr Tower Cranes, Eiffage, Leonhard-Weiss, Hilti, and Autodesk. “The site is the ideal opportunity to combine knowledge from both research and industry,” Brell-Cokcan says. “The fact that it’s like an actual laboratory is beneficial for both sides.”

The university hopes this project will function as a catalyst within Europe and break down borders around the world. “What makes Europe strong in construction are processes and customized solutions,” Brekk-Cokcan says. “In the USA, it’s data, and in China, it’s products. Europe can be strong as long as we, as process owners, drive development and are able to develop processes on the data and product sides.”

To drive the processes forward, the flow of information in the construction industry will be analyzed to determine how various stakeholders are networked. Brell-Cokcan says there are still far too many weaknesses in this regard: Only 10% of construction companies’ data makes it to the construction site; for architects, it’s just 1%. Data continues to be exchanged by fax, email, or paper, meaning a considerable amount of information is lost or must be re-collected.

digital construction technology University staff and industrial partners mark the opening of the futuristic construction site
University staff and industrial partners mark the opening of the futuristic construction site. Image courtesy of RWTH Aachen University.

These systemic issues exist because construction sites are lagging when it comes to digitalization. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has funded a research project called the Internet of Construction; Brell-Cokcan wants to use it to uncover which information flows are digital, what platforms are used, and how collaboration can be more efficient.

Brell-Cokcan has a relatively low opinion of big data. “We should instead focus on smart data and only collect information that is relevant,” she says, adding that this will improve time savings and platform capacity, streamlining processes.

The Center Construction Robotics is an Autodesk Technology Impact Partner. “Impact” refers to several traits, including sustainability: An RWTH consortium led by the faculty of Mechanical Engineering wants to reduce construction’s carbon consumption, drawing on research from the Fuel Science Center (FSC). The center is also researching how building materials could bind and recycle pollutants, how these materials could be used and dismantled throughout their lifecycle, and how the circular economy could make construction more environmentally friendly.

Brell-Cokcan hopes that the construction site will also connect different university departments. To this end, a new English-language master’s program in Construction Robotics (CR) will begin in 2020 and bring together undergraduate students from mechanical engineering, computer science, civil engineering, and architecture. The laboratory-like construction site will provide an experimental field for the students on their way to establishing new professions in construction digitalization.

The construction industry is evolving digitally to survive; new professions are emerging and traditional professions are changing. “We believe that the entire construction industry will be subject to disruptive change over the next 10 to 20 years,” Brell-Cokcan says. Because machines are “democratic,” everyone will be able to build. Her aim is to make machines that are “as simple as possible—something that everyone can use, like a smartphone,” to help ensure that digitization actively promotes the creativity of architects.

Brell-Cokcan wants to integrate the construction industry’s creative potential into research and hopes that architects will drive change rather than react to it. “It’s very important that we as architects play a leading role in designing automation processes in the construction industry,” she says. “Technology is a key in our hands. Let’s see what our creative spirit can do with it.”

Friederike Voigt

About Friederike Voigt

Friederike Voigt is Content Manager for Autodesk being responsible for Design & Make with Autodesk in EMEA. She previously worked as a journalist with Callwey, a German leading publishing house specializing in architecture. While studying Media Management and History of Art she was awarded a national scholarship in journalism and worked for various newspapers and magazines including the German Press Agency (dpa) and Cicero Magazine.

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