Making Machines Uncomfortable with Andrew Wit

Curatorial Assistant Kathryn Zimmerhanzel sits down with Andrew Wit to talk about his work in robotic fabrication. 

KZ: When considering robotic fabrication, my initial impression is something very detached and streamlined. Your projects seem almost to counter this, working in a way that introduces aspects of craft. Could you discuss how you came to this? How do you achieve these qualities through machine-based processes? 

AW: I do think that robotic fabrication can be a detached process. The robots that we work with are similar to those used in companies such as General Motors, Tesla, or any large manufacturing company where computer processes are created and then repeated hundreds of thousands of times with minimal change. With the high level of repeatability and low cost associated with manufacture, craft is difficult to find within this process. Take, for example, your hand-held smart devices. They are beautiful artifacts, but there is no sense of, or residual elements remaining from, the machine that fabricated the object. In the end you are left with a completely perfect artifact. For mass production this works, and so that is one way of looking at robotic fabrication. But for us, we choose to see the robot as an extension of the hand, striving more for the creation of tactile environments rather than efficiency. 

 
 

However, as we advance, robots are becoming more hands-on. In Germany, there is a large robotics manufacturing company called KUKA. They recently released one of the first industrial robots utilizing human sensitive touch feedback (KUKA IIWA). This now makes it possible to program your design computationally, run it through the robot, and, with your hand, adjust the robot’s movement in space. This takes us back to a more tactile process. Just as when you are painting and you adjust the pressure of the brush running across the paper, a similar level of feel can now be accomplished in real-time as the robot is in motion. On top of this, the robot now remembers how you modified its motion, so when you run the same code again, it runs the modified operation. Now you have the ability to design your artifact first on the computer and then reprogram it by hand in real-time. 

KZ: How have you applied these advancements in your own work?

Currently in my research, we are attempting to work with, and further, this concept with low cost prototypes. What we are currently working on is building a miniature robot, based on the proportions and movement of our full size KUKA KR 60 industrial robot, out of Legos. With it, we have the potential to design an artifact, run the code first through the small robot, manipulating it by hand to recalibrate the large robot’s code, which adds a new layer of craft to robotic design. So basically, we are striving for the ability to tweak every aspect of the design process very easily without ever having to pick up a physical tool. If we don’t like the outcome of our initial preprogramming, we can just come in by hand and quickly twist one of the six axes in a different way, and rapidly compare various outcomes. 

It seems, at the moment, that there is a growing dialog on robotic craft, but it remains difficult to find situations where designers have had the ability to apply the methodology. Robotic fabrication is a challenge for designers, because even with simple machines, there are aspects of complexity. I am referring to the size and programming of the machine, the navigation of its movement through space and its inability to detect collisions on its own. Our robot is not aware of anything, including itself. And so, with the robot we are attempting to give it a higher level of intelligence and awareness by embedding sensors and linked microprocessors. That way, if someone does walk into the work circle, the machine will immediately stop and they won’t be injured. Safety is a problem we must consider every time we work with the robot. In the raising of the robots awareness, we are trying to make the designer’s hand and the robot a singular tool; and through this, reintegrating craft into process of robotic design and fabrication. 

 
 

KZ: So much of design is about finding solutions to problems. In fabrications done by hand, it seems like a pretty linear trajectory from problem to design solution. How is this altered when robots come into play? 

AW: Much of the time, it is inventing new solutions to problems that previously had none. And so, it’s a bit different from picking up a hammer and performing an action that gets, say, this nail from this point into that material. It’s more about deriving completely new ways to put things together. The machine allows us to bypass the hammer and nail through the investigation of new material combinations and fabrication techniques. For me, the interesting concept behind robotics is that if you are presented with a problem, you can build a tool to solve that problem. The invention of the tool becomes a whole new fun game as well. So, you are no longer limited to the tools that can be found in your local hardware shop, and now spend time figuring out how you build something that attaches to this machine that allows for the creation of something else. Machines that make machines basically. Once you make the desired tool, you have created a totally new process for solving a given problem. 

However, the tools and robots are not as accurate as you might think. And because of this, you can begin to record and anticipate the imprecisions of the machine. For example, when fabricating an artifact as small as a phone or hand held device, it may look and feel perfect. In this situation, the robots are operating within a tiny enclosed area where tolerances can be held extremely high and movement kept extremely low. Accuracy and repeatability begins to depend on your tool and the size of your work area. With projects of this scale, it is as if you are working with the edge of your finger. This allows you a high level of precision. But now, if you have something that is 10 or 15 feet off the robots center of gravity, with a machine weighing over 3,000 pounds that is fabricating something small, vibrations and other imperfections may begin to appear. So what I began to do with the T_Series furniture is to look at these vibrations and imperfections as positive design elements, and investigate how to integrate these unexpected motions into the design process. For me, everything doesn’t need to be as precise as the objects we deal with on a daily basis. You can force the machines out of their comfort zone by moving them back and forth over long distances very quickly, creating imperfections within the machine’s output to produce interesting, uncontrolled patterns as you fabricate the artifact. 

So in this way, fabrication is no longer as simple as running a board through the planer. You begin to analyze the patterns that machine inaccuracies might cause, and construct the object with that in mind. If you want the artifact to be flawless, the machine can easily be calibrated to do so. But, we can now begin to harness and program the imprecision of the machine as well, creating a new tactile process of architectural craft. 

 
 

KZ: I was going to ask you about that idea of the accidental. Much of the time in art, and I am sure in design as well, you fall into a kind of error, or more a happy accident, and begin to work with that. Could you talk more about how you experience and integrate this type of error in the designs? 

AW: Definitely. There was a prototype that we fabricated [T_Three] where the top surface of the material was planed completely smooth. However, on the underside of this same table, I began to work with the grain, texture, and imperfections of the wood. I determined a new series of cut paths that the machine would take, creating them in a way that was not necessarily the most efficient. In this process, the machine gets kind of finicky; it bounces around, especially in tight radiuses. If we slowed down the machine it would be completely precise; but rather than do that, we ran it quickly because I knew that this would allow for more texture to appear. So now, running your hand around the finished object, the areas that are lowest or closest to the ground feel the most textured, while areas on top are absolutely smooth. The result is a very interesting transition moving from super smooth to super rough. To do that by hand with repeatability would be very difficult. 

A lot of my peers mentioned to me that they were really disappointed; they didn’t understand why the most interesting aspects of the design were located on the bottom of the object. But for me, whenever I sit at a table, I always first touch the bottom. Because I can see the top and its sensorial translation is so apparent. I am always looking for a textural experience, a disconnect between the visual and the tactile. I like to produce artifacts that result in engagement, confusion even. That is one of the interesting things that we are beginning to be able to test, a sort of calculated imprecision and making allowances for this in craft. 

 
 

KZ: Incorporating error seems to add a whole other layer of complexity to both process and product, how do materials fit into this? Those for the T_Three table seemed to present a challenge. 

AW: Well, all the material that we had for this project was scrap, donated because it wasn't perfect. But they were still amazing. From these donated materials, we used several different wooden boards of various species for the creation of T_Three. We had a really beautiful piece of cherry that was extremely twisted, so beyond repair that you couldn’t run it through a planer to flatten it out. We also had a piece of mahogany, white oak, and two smaller boards of walnut, none of which were perfect. Each piece was   3-D scanned individually, and then CNC milled in a way that you wouldn’t usually, to flatten the lumber on both sides. We then rescanned the lumber, and digitally assembled it, giving us the precise shape of the base form. We then used a tensile modeling software from a company I’ve been working with for a while to generate a minimal surface geometry. This gave me a catenary based form, which essentially provides a very minimal surface that allowed us to really thin down the material while still leaving it structural. We then physically assembled the boards and, looking at the direction of the wood, I extracted their grain patterns in Adobe Illustrator. Once the grain patterns were extracted, we created cut patterns where the machine would either cut with or against the grain to produce the desired gradient of texture. The process for this project was basically taking found materials and manipulating them with atypical tools in a way that gave them a new life. 

KZ: So when you are designing with these programs, would you say you being with an image of the resulting form in mind?

AW: No, not at all. I go into the design process with absolutely no preconceptions. I originally assembled the lumber a certain way because structurally it made sense for what we were trying to make. For example, with the T_Three, there were initial research initiatives we wished to test such as utilizing a tensile fabric modeling software for form finding, pushing my knowledge of the machine and finally using the imperfections of the machine as a new design methodology. Through these processes, I rapidly created a series of formal design iterations. Each iteration investigated the relationship between software, material and machine. After fifty or so iterations, a final form was determined. As I have only a few days to complete these types of projects, design and prototyping is done rapidly. 

Although for T_Three we began with no final image or end result in mind, this is not the case with every project we create. For example, we will be initiating a new robotically fabricated project during the spring of 2015, in which we will be investigating robotic composite weaving, or how to weave material in a way that is structural using robots in an architectural scale. Basically, this project will be like sewing a shirt, but in a way that can support an entire building. It is a much more complex project, working at large scale with composites like carbon fiber. I, again, don’t have an exact image in mind for the final project, no guarantee as to what it will look like, maybe a house, maybe a blob. However, I do know it is a necessary step in my research, and that there is a process I will create to achieve my desired outcome of a lightweight flexible housing system. In such cases, I have a series of simple end goals from the onset, and let my newly created tools drive my process. This is how I typically go about my projects—there is a concept, something that needs to be done or achieved, but no concrete ideology concerning form for the end product. I just want to create something that I haven’t seen before.

KZ: I know that you spent some time in Japan. How did this inform the way that you work now?

AW: So many things have come together to affect the way that I practice and research—from living here in San Antonio, studying at MIT, to practicing, teaching and traveling in Japan, China, Taiwan, and Indiana. It is kind of a large conglomeration of cultures, ideas and processes. 

But, there are several things that really influenced me. The first was knowing that in Japan, buildings retain very little value. I find this very interesting. Here in the states, you want your house to look like your neighbor’s house. You want this because if their house is worth $400,000, your house should also be worth $400,000. In Japan, your house is worth zero. So, when someone buys your house, what they are buying is the land. The home is typically removed before the sale is final. 

Therefore, when you build something such as a house it can be highly specific to that person or family. I have seen houses with rock-climbing walls that access hidden spaces or internal slides and stages for their children. This makes the home super private and specific to each inhabitant. Although this does not happen in most cases, it is a design possibility you may come across. But it is that family’s house and no one else’s. So now value is placed on the individual and their experiences rather then the artifact and its relationship to its neighboring buildings. This idea is very important to me. Is this not how the artifacts we interact with on a daily basis should be made? If I am making something, and investing my money, time and effort into the artifact, why should it not be specific to me? This is something I rarely see here in the States. Another influence was the attention to detail found in everything from packaging to buildings. As a person who scrutinizes every detail, I can really appreciate this. But, in Japan, there is something truly amazing about how buildings are assembled. The craft and care necessary in put together a house was always most significant to me. 

KZ: Can you identify any other inspirations? 

AW: Inspiration is such a difficult aspect to identify. You wake up in the morning and the ideas are just there. But something I would say inspired me was the curiosity and drive that people had early on in the space program. What I am speaking of is the type of imagination and drive for discovering the unknown that now is rarely visible. You witness the imagination in the World Expos, or with the Metabolist architects, (a group in Japan who questioned the state of architecture and urbanism in the 60's and 70’s). Or even with the inflatable projects within "Ant farm’s”, inflatocookbook. I suppose I would say I try to emulate these high - spirited and very conceptual models. The technical part is okay, but I like there to be some sort of exhibitionism. And I’d like people to somehow get inspired by these things again. 

KZ: So your designs are about more than solutions, they are about devising a whole new language to solve a whole new set of problems. Innovation as an intervention. 

AW: We have to modify the way we design to encompass a whole new set of constraints. So much of what I do is about making people aware of these issues. I think people are uneasy with showing that language perceptibly. Like imperfections in tool-markings where you can see what the tool was and how it worked or affected the material. In the things I do, you can see every tool mark unless I don’t want you to see it. That is part of the process that I am trying to make understood. The easy thing to do is to erase. I just tell the machine to do it five times more finely and it disappears. But, you would never know that gradient— where it went from completely polished down to something that the machine itself was not comfortable making.

Making Machines Uncomfortable is a continuation of Andrew Wit's essay Investigations in Robotic Craft


Andrew Wit is currently the International Practitioner in Residence within the College of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University. He is also co-founder of the interdisciplinary design office WITO*. Wit earned his Bachelors in Science in Architecture from The University of Texas at San Antonio, and his Masters in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Wit has practiced, taught, and researched in the U.S., Japan, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, including offices of Atelier Bow Wow, Tsushima Design Studio, and Toyo Ito Associates in Tokyo, and Poteet Architects in San Antonio. His collaborative works have been highly published and won several awards such as the 2007 AIA Best of Practice award for UTenSAils, 2007 IFAI Outstanding Achievement Award, and the 2013 Guangzhou Vanke Project of the Year for Guangzhou One.

Wit’s current research focuses on the relationship between robotics, digital fabrication, adaptive environments and their relationship to architectural craft. Most recently his research has taken form in a collaboration with The Boeing Company, exploring the potential for integrating aircraft technologies into the realm of architecture.

For more information on Andrew Wit's work, visit www.andrewjohnwit.com.