Centre of Applied Research Technology

5 years Robot Lab: 5 highlights

‘Integrating education, research and practice was in our DNA from day one'

3 Oct 2022 14:34 | Centre for Applied Research Technology

In September the Robot Lab of the AUAS celebrates its fifth anniversary. Time to look back! What were the highlights of the past years? Marta Malé-Alemany, Lead of the Robot Lab and Head Lecturer in Digital Production, takes us past five decisive moments.

2017: launch of the Robot Lab

'When I started at AUAS Faculty of Technology, it was with the idea to develop the concept of an ‘urban factory’ powered by digital production: a place in the middle of the city, where students, researchers and practice partners would work together to develop innovative design and production processes for the reuse of circular materials. To start I proposed to the faculty to invest in an industrial robot for teaching and researching digital production, with the urban factory in mind. Unfortunately, the purchase of the robot was not approved, and I had to think of alternatives. What if we rented a robot instead of buying it? The faculty agreed to that. Our team, which consisted of myself and two part-time researchers, was assigned a small space in the basement of the building, which had been used for furniture storage. We were given one year time to demonstrate that this robot could be an asset for education and research. This was the start of the Robot Lab.'

'From the beginning it was clear that working with circular materials required a new way of designing and producing. The design of a product was no longer the central aspect driving production, but rather the available material from which it could be made. After all, circular materials do not come in fixed quantities, dimensions or quality. So if you want to make a chair out of residual wood, it requires a flexible design process and customization, which is the opposite of mass producing a product with homogeneous materials based on one standard design. The technologies developed by our team in the Robot Lab, involving computational design and robotic production, aim to facilitate an innovative ‘design from availability’ approach which can be scaled-up. In this way, valuable materials such as waste and residual wood, which are often incinerated, can be given a second life.'

The Robot Lab in the former faculty building

2019: purchasing a track with two robots

'Once we had demonstrated the work with students and researchers using the rented robot, it was time for the next step: the purchase of an eight meter track with two coordinated robots on it. The manufacturer of the robot informed us that in the industry it was rather unusual to place two robots on a track; no one did it that way. Yet I persevered, because this set-up would allow us to explore many different production processes connected to that ‘urban factory’ vision. On the track we could replicate production lines: one robot could handle and pre-process a piece of wood, for example, and then pass it on to the second robot for further processing.'

‘Today, the manufacturer of the robots also acknowledges the interest of such a setup, and even asked if they could use the Robot Lab to train their engineers. Because of our initial experimental choices, they can now learn a lot from it. This shows how important the Robot Lab is for current and future professionals. It provides a dynamic, learning environment where to experiment and experience to the fullest what it is like to work with advanced technology. This applies to students from inside and outside the AUAS, from all kinds of backgrounds and bachelor programmes: Engineering, Built Environment, Technical Informatics, Communication & Media Design and more. Not only mixing disciplines but also educational levels, shown by our long-lasting collaboration with the HMC College of Wood and Furnishings. Together with researchers and partners, students work on societal challenges like the circular transition. This multi-disciplinary and multi-level collaboration is at the heart of the Robot Lab: integrating education, research and practice was in our DNA from day one.'

2020: stronger through corona

The reception desk for the Johan Cruyff ArenA

'At the beginning of the corona pandemic, the Robot Lab, like all other AUAS locations, was forced to close. It looked like we would have to stop teaching and working, because without the Lab there was little we could do. But this challenge again required new ideas: to ensure that students would not miss their practical education, and research could continue, we developed a prototypical Robot Lab Covid-19 protocol, which served as a pilot to reopen all labs on AUAS Campus. This is when we started offering blended education, with students alternating lessons at home and on location. And research-focused internships could also continue. Fundamentally, in this period we laid the foundation for a new Robot Lab, a place where our ecosystem works together digitally and physically in a flexible, future-proof way.'

‘Because the Robot Lab was allowed to reopen, we could also continue with our project for the Johan Cruyff ArenA. Using digital production technologies we made an innovative reception desk made of residual wood, for the VVIP Lounge in the stadium. It involved designing from a data-bank of parts, and the challenge of processing and assemblying 300+ interlocking wooden parts of variable dimensions, color and type.. The result was a ‘conversation piece’, meant to start a conversation between companies, government and other parties about circularity and sustainable design. The reception desk made very visible the added value of digital production for upscaling circular applications. It was the first time that the outside world could fully understand what we do as Robot Lab, the values we stand for and the potential impact our work.’

The CW4N exposition

2020: Circular Wood for the Neighborhood

'With Circular Wood for the Neighborhood (CW4N), we embarked on our first major, multi-year research project. For two years, students, researchers and partners worked together on this project. The central question was how wood released from housing renovations could be turned into new circular products through digital production. To investigate this, we came up with three application cases: a small renovation project of a few houses, a large building renovation project and the vision of a future collaboration between several housing corporations sharing wood from different projects. For this we developed several prototypes: a coffee table, a community structure and an interior space division system. The main idea was that after the renovation, all tenants would receive some of the wood back in the form of a new, circular object for their home or the common public space, such as a pavilion or playground equipment. The results of this research can be seen from September 15 in an exhibition in the Jakoba Mulder House, the new building of the Faculty of Technology.'

2022: on to the next phase

'This leads me to the fifth highlight. As of September 2022, the Robot Lab is located in the new Jakoba Mulder House. The building is itself at the intersection of the Stadhouderskade and the Wibautstraat, also known as The Green Mile and The Knowledge Mile. Here the AUAS, together with other parties, has long been committed to a sustainable, green and safe environment. It is fantastic that the new, state-of-the art Robot Lab is now in the middle of the place where these initiatives come together. We are in a beautiful location in the building, in the glass facade, where we look out on the city, and the city looks out on us. That interaction is incredibly important.'

Robot Lab team in their new location

'In the new Robot Lab we see a glimpse of the urban factory we envisioned five years ago, where we can use robots and apply digital production processes to help advance the circular transition or address other urgent societal challenges in the city. How great is it for Amsterdam students to work in the Robot Lab on innovations for a city that is right outside their door? The connection between inside and outside, between a first prototype made in the Lab and the production of a final result on location, has never been so tangible. The same goes for the contact with our partners. For example, the office of the architectural firm UNStudio is within walking distance. We are working with them on The Green Mile initiative, and they contribute to our Minor in Robotic Production and Circular Materials. With a Robot Lab that is now at the heart of Amsterdam, a we are in the position to push the integration of education, research and practice to a new level.. From our new location and a committed team, we aim to inspire and collaborate with bachelor programs, industry partners and other AUAS Labs in this game-changing endeavor.'