Ceramic Futures

Martin Bechthold, Professor of Architectural Technology, and Christoph Reinhart, Associate Professor of Architectural Technology, with support and funding from the Spanish Ceramic Tile Manufacturers’ Association (ASCER), have developed a process for making an external shading system of unique, high performance, aesthetically pleasing ceramic tile louvers. The process marries design and performance to create a product system that has the potential to transform building façade cladding and mitigate energy consumption while improving the quality of life for inhabitants.

A student team led by Reinhart developed an early version for a new ‘form suggesting’ algorithm that optimizes the form of an arbitrarily shaped surface intended to be a shading element in consideration of annual heating and cooling loads. A prototype of the algorithm called ‘SHADERADE’ was implemented into the popular Rhinoceros/Grasshopper CAD Environment and was also linked to both the US Department of Energy’s Energy Plus and Radiance state-of-the-art simulation engines. A paper describing SHADERADE will be presented November 2011 in Sydney, Australia at Building Simulation 2011, the world’s premier building performance simulation conference.

After the surface has been transformed into optimized, aesthetically pleasing louver segments, each tile must be isolated and fabricated. Traditionally a custom mold needed to be produced for all individually shaped tiles. That created a high level of waste due to the number of molds that needed to be manufactured as well as the very limited applications for re-use. Additionally, there was a high level of production inefficiency resulting from the labor and time needed to produce the unique tile louvers. Responding to this challenge, another student team led by Bechthold developed a novel production technique for manufacturing the custom tiles using a variable pin mold and a robotically controlled ceramic deposition system. Due to its fluid forming properties, ceramic was considered an ideal material for the louvers. Both teams also chose to work with the widely adopted software platform Rhinoceros and Grasshopper to demonstrate that advanced parametric modeling and fabrication can be achieved through accessible and open interface software.

A sculptural shading screen was developed as a prototypical design experiment. Louvers range from near vertical to horizontal; their twisted and curved shapes make for a formidable fabrication challenge. The team, including doctoral candidate Jonathan King, research associates Anthony Kane and Justin Lavallee, developed a two-pronged approach whereby a variable “pin” mold was used to form a surface onto which a robotically guided extruder deposited ceramic material. The low-cost mold apparatus consists of adjustable vertical pins that can be positioned robotically with the same robotic work cell used to deposit the ceramic material. Software scripts automate the generation of the robotic instructions based on the optimized louver tile surfaces. Scaling the tile surfaces compensates for shrinkage encountered during the drying and firing of the ceramic. The software rotates and positions the louvers for virtual production, then generates the individual robotic code for actuating the pin mold. The ends of the pins replicate the tile surface and a proprietary cam mechanism locks the mold in place.

The robotic ceramic deposition system extrudes clay through a custom nozzle head attached to an ABB robotic arm. The position and path of the nozzle head is precisely controlled. The code needed to run the robot is, again, automatically generated using the team’s custom tools within the design software. The path of the clay extrusion can be precisely calibrated to produce robust tiles. The outer surface of prototypical production tiles was robotically post-processed to achieve a finish compatible with industrial standards. Using the industrial robot, the contours of the deposited, dried clay can be dimensionally rectified to accommodate for shrinkage during firing.

The current prototypical process will be further developed for potential incorporation—in part or as a whole—into low-volume industrial tile production settings. Ongoing work investigates new clay mixtures to produce fluidity with decreased clay water content. Nozzle and deposition methods are also undergoing constant refinements, targeting a finish quality that eliminates post-processing entirely. Finally, the team is looking forward to investigating new tile shapes in order to demonstrate the flexibility and appeal of this new and exciting ceramic fabrication method.

The processes and techniques developed in this project offer a way to reconcile performance and design so that they work together harmoniously to produce building facades that are both formally expressive and environmentally optimized.

For more information on this and other research projects in robotic fabrication, visit the Design Robotics Group.

Core Team Members:
Nathan King (DDes), Shelby Doyle (MArch), Anthony Kane, Jeffrey Niemasz (MArch), Justin Lavallee, Jon Sargent (MArch), Ben Tew, Corey Yurkovich

Special Thanks To:
Ana Martinez Balaguer and Pepe Castellano of ASCER as well as Javier Mira (Instituto de Technologia Ceramica, Castellon, Spain) for their support. Assistance was also provided by Forrest Snyder, Kathy King, and Shawn Panepinto from the Harvard Ceramics Program. Cameron Willard and his team in the GSD Fabrication Lab supported the prototyping efforts and production assistance was provided by GSD students Corey Yurkovich, Ben Tew, Arseni Zaitsev, and Alexander Watchman.

Rendering: Jan Kokol
Video Editing: Carnaven Chiu

Sponsored by ASCER (Spanish Ceramic Tile Association)