Project Case Study: Fiber Placement Technology
Mike Silver credits the History Channel for his dedication to computer-aided fiber placement technology: while watching a television show on how business jets were made, he caught a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clip of an enormous robot working on airplane fuselage. Fascinated, he called up the Raytheon factory where the jets were being made and asked to take a look. After taking an extensive tour, he “left with [his] jaw dragging on the floor,” he says.
The tour had introduced him to computer-aided fiber placement, an aerospace technology that utilizes computer-programmed robots to make fiber-reinforced plastic fuselage. The computer programming allows for a previously unavailable precision and control that eliminates the need for constructing an underlying structure beneath the fuselage skin; instead, a single layer can serve as both skin and structure, creating a much more sustainable component that consumes fewer resources than those made with conventional design methods.
Silver, an architect, was inspired by the possibilities that this previously-unseen technology held for his artistic practice. He began his research at the University of Michigan and brought it to Pratt Institute, where he taught fourth-design architecture design studio, in 2005. With the support of Architecture Chair Evan Douglas, Silver’s studio became the first in the country to study computer-aided fiber placement. At the same time, Silver had a fellowship with Rafael Vinoli Architects, so with the firm’s cooperation he took the studio class to the Automated Dynamics factory in Schenectady. There, students attended lectures and demonstrations, and were able to build four prototype parts with fiber-placement robots. These prototypes were later displayed in the studio’s design final, along with small prefabricated houses made with fiber-placement technology.
Large-scale versions of those houses could be the future of architecture. Computer-aided fiber placement can manufacture sustainable buildings that consume far fewer resources throughout the manufacturing process; additionally, the technology opens possibilities for buildings that are biodegradable and able to generate their own energy. The excitement for architects, says Silver, is that with the convergence of multiple disciplines such as ecology, digital fabrication and software development, architects can now have “thoughts they couldn’t have before.” The challenges, however, are the limited availability of materials and technology, and what Silver calls a need to focus on “not sustainable building, but architecture that is sustainable.” As artist, Silvers and his peers want to find a way to incorporate the technologies, materials and structures of sustainable building into architecture without losing the beauty and power of their art.
Currently, Silver continues to pursue his research and apply for grants that will allow him to move his project forward, beyond the scope of the design studio and into a new way of thinking about and practicing sustainable architecture.