New Kuka Robot Takes Free-Form Timber Designs from Drawing Board to Production

A new robot milling cell with the capability of machining wood panels up to seven metres long, working in eight axes of motion, is helping the Centre for Advanced Wood Processing (CAWP) research and develop complex free-form wood structures that previously existed only in virtual environments. The robot comes from Kuka Roboter GmbH, one of the world’s largest robot manufacturers, and is the first of its kind in Canada.

Transforming timber into complex forms is challenging since it can’t be molded or welded, and these constraints have restricted the structural expression of timber design, particularly in non-residential projects. CAD and CNC fabrication technologies can model new and complex structures, but they need to be translated into end products using digital fabrication tools like robots.

Thanks to the new Kuka robot, UBC aims to take free-form complex designs from the drawing board to production. Ongoing collaborations among the Department of Wood Science, the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and the Department of Civil Engineering are researching, developing and prototyping new building systems. The Kuka robot now provides a platform for validation of these new concepts.

The robot is on a 5.5 metre track, which gives it the range of motion to machine extremely large panels or objects. A rotary positioning table in front of the track offers 360-degree movement of the workpiece itself, enabling the robot to function in eight axes of motion.

The Kuka robot arrived at CAWP in April 2016, and since then has been used in a major workshop in September, led by doctoral candidates David Correa and Oliver David Krieg of the Institute for Computational Design (ICD) at the University of Stuttgart, which is world-renowned for its expertise in robot-assisted design and fabrication.

The workshop was filled to capacity with a mixture of students, researchers and industry practitioners from Canada and the United States, who spent five days moving from understanding how to use the robot to the development and construction of a full-scale fabrication project.

“This workshop was where we really saw what a game-changer this robot is, especially in terms of its work envelope size,” says Jorn Dettmer, Technical Operations Manager for CAWP. “Once participants learned to safely operate the robot, there was a lot of excitement in seeing how fast and precisely it turned their complex designs into reality.”

The Kuka robot will break new and imaginative free-form timber structures out of their virtual confinement through prototyping and fabrication, leading to new applications and markets for Canadian wood products. Timber has the potential to become known as a value-added, high-tech material selected for its aesthetic, environmental and structural performance qualities.

Already, CAWP has received requests to use the Kuka robot in a collaborative design-build project with a prominent BC architectural firm, as well as in a product development project with a noted BC designer and artist. A collaborative project with a BC First Nation is also in the works.

Acquisition of the Kuka robot was made possible by a grant from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) and a generous gift from a private foundation. The Faculty is deeply grateful to NSERC and the private foundation for helping make this unique research technology available to our students and researchers, other UBC academic units, and industry partners.