A series of folios presenting design research by staff at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL
ProtoRobotic FOAMing : mam; Grymsdyke Farm; REX|LAB;
ProtoRobotic FOAMing
by mam, Grymsdyke Farm and REX|LAB

ProtoRobotic FOAMing is a research project that examines morphological change and energy efficiency resulting from manipulating foam through digital fabrication. A series of experimental prototypes aim to change the use of foam from an ordinary cavity wall insulation material to a more visible material composing entire building envelopes. The research aims to begin to bridge the gaps in scale, price and expertise between relatively simply achievable rapid-prototype models and 1:1 architectural designs that are fabricated using CNC methods. The project developed through two stages of prototyping: first using rigid blown foam boards, and later using fast curing soft Polyurethane foam tubes, mixed with cement and stretched by robotic arms.

By externalising foam insulation and using foam as a pliable design tool in CNC fabrication, the project increases the formal potential to implement ornamentation, geometry and texture. It also considers the retrofitting possibilities of the advanced design and use of foam in existing buildings with low-energy performance. Foam is a material with great potential and relatively low costs: it can be soft or stiff, it can be shaped, it is light and easily transportable, and it has good insulation properties.

Initial research focussed on applying widely available milling fabrication technologies with clear mechanical limitations (e.g. bed size, z-axis constraints) and geometric limitations (e.g. undercuts, volume constraints) to rigid panels of foam, testing them for fitness and appropriateness. Algae-Cellunoi, installed at the 2013 ArchiLAB exhibition Naturalizing Architecture, synthesises these technologies and earlier experiments into one piece.

Following this work with rigid panels, the research progressed to experimentation with wet foam, using a MultiMove setup with three movable ABB IRB2600 robots. The open layout, combined with the flexibility of the total sum of 18-axes industrial robot (as compared to the three axes of a generic CNC milling machine) is believed to overcome many mechanical and geometric constraints.

Iterations of the work have been exhibited in Orléans (2013–2014); Tallinn, Innsbruck, Vienna, Prague (2013); Graz (2012); Tel Aviv (2011); and London (2010–2013) and presented.