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Fabrication's fertile ground

How Autodesk melds technological savvy with teamwork—and a few cool toys

SHARE Nov–Dec 2019

AB Autodesk

Footage course of Autodesk

Robots. Real live robots. The first impression of the Autodesk Technology Center in Boston is exactly as cool as you’d think. A giant flat-screen panel runs a video of futuristic animations and robotic action sequences showing automated construction technology—only it’s not the future, and it’s all happening right in front of you. As you turn to go up the stairs, you see the exact same robots—in real life—swinging building materials around the space and printing giant building parts from magical plastic spools.

Formerly known as the BUILD Space, the Technology Center is based on a simple proposition: In exchange for providing free access to the most advanced robots and 3D printers, Autodesk is able to keep an eye on what the most creative minds in the field would do in this fantastical nerd playground. Nearly five years into the experiment, it seems to be paying dividends for all involved.

When Nikita Chen-iun-tai brought his fledgling construction-industry 3D-printing company Apis Cor to the US from Moscow in October 2018, it had earned a coveted spot in the NASA 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. The only problem was that the deadline for the competition to advance construction technology needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth and beyond was less than three months away, and the company was in a new country, sprinting to deliver on the incredible ideas it had promised in its entry.

The Technology Center provided more than cool toys and space to work. Chen-iun-tai and his team relied heavily on the Autodesk shop staff and the other resident teams to find local sources for materials and to provide training and access to new software. As the competition entered its final weeks, they even talked the staff into opening the shops and fabrication studios for them on off-hours in order to make their final deadline. The team’s efforts were rewarded, with Apis Cor sharing the top prize in a key phase of the competition.

Coming out of the NASA challenge, Chen-iun-tai and his team shifted their goal to bringing their product to market, which presented challenges. Current building codes never anticipated, and therefore do not accept, houses built by giant robots. To build theirs, Apis Cor deploys a giant robotic arm anywhere in the world, where it uses a custom-designed nozzle to lay down beads of concrete, which look like a bizarre cross between advanced robotics and toothpaste technology. The robot can create walls by layering parallel stripes of concrete on top of each other, with a crisscross pattern between them for support.

During one of Autodesk’s biweekly “ideas exchanges,” another resident team—from Thornton Tomasetti—recognized the lattice structure as being functionally equivalent to concrete blocks. The company offered its engineering services to help Apis Cor provide the structural calculations necessary to achieve code certification.

As Apis Cor realized the benefits of making new friends, the company connected with another Technology Center resident and interactive public artist, New American Public Art (NAPA). A mainstay of the center for a few years, NAPA is one of the most notable resident teams, largely because of the many mildly creepy robotic owls that sit on team members’ desks—the owls being the prototypes used for the interactive sculpture the team created of two great horned owls at the University of Texas.

Impressed by the complexity and creativity of what NAPA was developing in its workspace, Apis Cor reached out for assistance. The company was having trouble developing a mixing machine that could blend the component parts of concrete together and feed it to the robot nozzle at a consistent rate. As a result of this collaboration, the two teams are now developing the product as a joint venture.

The Technology Center’s secret sauce seems to be its ability to attract the most ambitious minds in automated construction while managing to not take itself too seriously. Recently, it embarked on a collaboration with the foodies at America’s Test Kitchen, another building resident, to develop a robot that could handle the otherwise impossible task of flipping the world’s largest pancake.

As companies continue to search for the next disruptive innovation, much has been made about how technology can enable sharing. Autodesk’s Technology Center is a fascinating corollary to how sharing enables technology.