Construction robots are trendy, but why aren’t they mainstream? Siôn Geschwindt caught up with Eva Magnisali, founder at DataForm Lab, who’s on a mission to tackle misconceptions, break down silos, and standardise the use of robotics in offsite construction
Growing up surrounded by ancient monuments in her home country of Greece, Eva Magnisali has always been fascinated by architecture – building, designing, and problem-solving is in her DNA.
Eva came to London after earning her Master’s Degree in Architecture at the National Technical University of Athens, to find out more about new technologies and innovative approaches to construction.
Her pursuit of knowledge landed her a spot in a second Master’s programme, this time at the Design Research Laboratory of the Architectural Association (AA)’s School of Architecture – one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions of its kind in the world. It was here where Eva’s journey with robotics began.
After a decade studying, teaching, and working at the interface of robotics, design, and construction, she set up DataForm Lab – a startup that aims to accelerate the integration of industrial robotics in the construction industry…
Why DataForm Lab?
Despite working in an architectural practice, a startup, in academia, and as head of robotics at Bryden Wood, I could never find the link between design and automation that I was looking for.
That is why I started DataForm Lab – to link design and manufacturing through a seamless workflow that enables all designers – not just specialists – to engage with robotic technologies and to embed digital manufacturing into their every day activities.
We do this through the development of custom-made design-to-fabrication digital tools.
We also use industrial robotic arms and other advanced fabrication technologies to prototype our clients’ design ideas, creating a feedback loop that helps us improve design for manufacturing performance.
Another core part of the business is automation consultancy for offsite manufacturers – helping the industry overcome the challenges of adoption and embed robotics in their business practices.
What are some misconceptions about robotics?
One of them is complexity. This is understandable – many research institutions present robotics in a very complex way and most of the projects on show are very high-tech.
Another is that robotics are expensive, when in fact they are actually at the lower end of the price spectrum when it comes to automation technologies. What is important is that this cost is clear and made easy to include in a general business plan.
While most people agree that robots are ‘cool’, the assumed cost and complexity limits adoption. But essentially, robots are just another machine, of which there are many already in use in construction.
Robots are there to make things better, faster, and more repeatable, and seamlessly link design to fabrication – but eventually no one should care if it was made by a robot or not.
When you drive in your car you don’t think to yourself ”Wow, this was made by a robot” – that’s because they have become a standard part of the automotive manufacturing process. This is where we need to get to in construction.
How has construction robotics evolved in recent years?
When I graduated from the Design Research Laboratory in 2015, the conversation about robotics in construction was in its infancy.
I started working at a robotics startup, RoboFold, which was one of only three or so of its kind in the whole of Europe. Education around robotics was also limited to just a few universities – it was a privilege to learn about it.
But since then, all the big academic institutions in the UK have started developing robotic labs, and it is generally becoming more mainstream, especially due to the shift toward offsite and modular construction.
“Automation technologies present a real opportunity to scale-up offsite construction”
The controlled environment of an offsite factory is more suited to robotics than the often chaotic environment of a construction site, and I believe that automation technologies present a real opportunity to scale-up this ‘production line-type’ approach to construction.
Nevertheless, I am a strong believer that robotics should only be used where they add value and bring return on investment. We have to remain very critical about how, where, and why they are deployed.
What does the future hold?
At the moment we are developing the Auto/Mate platform, a B2B marketplace geared towards offsite construction.
The platform automatically translates design parameters into robotic fabrication code through a seamless digital workflow – linking demand and supply and enabling the rapid adoption of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC).
By demystifying automation, we look to help manufacturers make more informed business decisions and give them confidence to enter the automated offsite construction market.
- Teleo raises $12m to turn construction equipment into remote-controlled robots
- Q-Bot secures £1.6m for its ‘Robot as a Service’
- Vinci backs ‘swarm robotics’ tunnelling startup hyperTunnel
Currently, we’re looking to bring in early adopters, who will receive free of charge automation consultancy in exchange for feedback about the platform to help with its development.
We don’t want to work in a silo, we want to listen to the industry’s needs and address them through the platform. It’s not just about one company, the whole framework – from design to construction – needs to change.
DataForm Lab can provide the tools needed, but in order to scale effectively and make this technology more accessible we need to collaborate, partner, and engage with each other. It’s a big plan and it needs everybody on board.
Image: Eva Magnisali, founder at DataForm Lab.
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