Swarmscapers is a 2 month long research project conducted in the Creative Architecture Machines studio, taught by Jason Kelly Johnson and Michael Shiloh at California College of the Arts in the Digital Craft Lab. It is a collaboration between Clayton Muhleman, Alan Cation, and Adithi Satish. A huge impetus behind the CAM studio as a whole is questioning what happens when architects become innovators of their own technological tools rather than mere users of prepackaged CAD suites and fabrication machines designed by engineers. No one on our team has a background in engineering or electronics, and this is not about architects trying to become engineers and optimize existing technologies. Rather, the studio questions what kind of creative potential architectural designers inventing their own machines can unlock, and speculates what broader socio-cultural ideas arise from architecture that is fabricated by these machines.
Swarmscapers explores the potential of an autonomous swarm of robots capable of operating independently in hostile environments. Utilizing on-site materials to create inhabitable structures, the robotic swarm's behavior materializes through a slow and constant process of layered 3d-printing. This projects the architectural potential of emerging robotic and fabrication technologies through a bottom-up rule-based system. Each unit within the robotic swarm acts as an individual agent embedded with a specific rule-set that drives its behavior and allows it to coordinate with other agents in the system. These agents 3d print large, architectural structures that calcify and emerge from the landscape where the impetus for structure is to develop future encampments in extreme environments, places where humans could not otherwise build. Extreme heat and the abundance of raw materials in the desert make it an ideal testing bed for the robotic swarm to operate, creating emergent seed buildings for future habitations that are ready for human occupancy over the course of multiple decades.
In order to test this wider vision, we established a laboratory-like setting focused on using at least one mobile robot to 3d print scaled objects within a 48" x 48" x 20" build volume. There were 2 major constants within our larger concept that allowed us to focus our research and achieve our goal in a 2 month time frame, which were to create a gantry-less mobile powder bed and inkjet head 3d printer (the specific technology of a Z Corp 3d printer), and to utilize on-site granular materials as building materials. It was important for our machine to remain gantry-less and mobile because it implies that multiple machines will one day be able to autonomously 3d print entire buildings, and it implies that these printers are relatively small compared to the buildings they are 3d printing. The advantages to using powder bed and inkjet head 3d printing as a technology, is that it allows us to print without scaffolding and create highly intricate shapes, and it allows us to reuse the leftover materials so that there is a minimal amount of waste during construction. In addition, our method can work with almost any granular material including sand, rice, semolina, salt, and sawdust. Since it is important to use materials found on site, we conducted our larger 3d prints in sawdust because CCA generates 6 dumpsters full of sawdust per week. Sawdust is abundant and it is extremely lightweight, making it an ideal material for us to test. The robot works by driving on top of the sawdust based on a tool-path defined in the computer, and dropping a binding agent on the material, hardening it in place. It does this repeatedly, layer by layer until the object is complete.