Arms Race

Yusuke Obuchi

Reviewed by Kengo Kuma

09 Aug 2015

An arms race is on in the worlds of com­pu­ta­tion and archi­tec­tur­al fab­ri­ca­tion research. Robots with increas­ing­ly large, fast, and pow­er­ful capa­bil­i­ties are avail­able and can pro­duce out­puts with mil­i­tary-grade pre­ci­sion. The assump­tion is that, through the use of these advanced tools, archi­tects will also advance the pro­duc­tion of out­puts, but can these tools be devel­oped with tra­di­tion­al forms of human engage­ment still in mind? Robots are not par­tic­u­lar­ly adap­tive. They do not inte­grate changes with ease — at least, not yet. Humans, on the oth­er hand, exhib­it great capac­i­ty for adap­ta­tion but lack the pre­ci­sion of robots. How could pre­ci­sion and adap­ta­tion be com­bined in archi­tec­ture, specif­i­cal­ly with­in the con­text of Japan, where I live and work and where imper­fec­tions are embraced as part of an ide­al form?

Explor­ing that ques­tion was one of the aims behind the STIK (Smart Tool Inte­grat­ed Kon­struc­tion) Pavil­ion project.

Through year­ly lab­o­ra­to­ry projects, stu­dents in Advanced Design Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo (T_ADS), where I teach archi­tec­ture, have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore non-tra­di­tion­al uses of oth­er­wise tra­di­tion­al mate­ri­als and approach­es. Those projects pro­vide stu­dents with unique, new chal­lenges in terms of fab­ri­ca­tion, con­struc­tion, and com­pu­ta­tion while encour­ag­ing lim­its to be pushed.

For the STIK project, we focused col­lec­tive­ly on the devel­op­ment of a scaled-up ver­sion of a 3‑D print­er that would uti­lize chop­sticks. The lat­ter mate­r­i­al was cho­sen because, in large quan­ti­ties, it is capa­ble of behav­ing like par­ti­cles, can be aggre­gat­ed, and can be solid­i­fied using adhe­sives. Addi­tion­al­ly, its scale as an aggre­gate is more con­ducive to pro­duc­tion of a build­ing, unlike the small­er-scale mate­ri­als used in con­ven­tion­al 3‑D print­ers. To accom­mo­date our mate­r­i­al, we also want­ed to make a fab­ri­ca­tion tool capa­ble of aug­ment­ing human capa­bil­i­ties through enhanced net­work­ing, which we called a net­work tool.

The net­work tool was devel­oped in two parts: a visu­al guid­ing sys­tem and a chop­stick-dis­pens­ing machine. The visu­al guid­ing sys­tem assists its oper­a­tors via a pro­jec­tion map­ping sys­tem and a scan­ning sys­tem using a video pro­jec­tor and a Kinect; a 3D motion sens­ing and scan­ning device devel­oped as part of Microsoft’s video game con­sole. The guid­ing sys­tem facil­i­tat­ed oper­a­tors’ knowl­edge of where, how, and when to oper­ate the machine, thus achiev­ing an adap­tive, real-time, dis­trib­uted fab­ri­ca­tion process. This com­bi­na­tion of man­u­al labor and com­pu­ta­tion­al analy­sis required not only the devel­op­ment of hard­ware but also soft­ware and human-machine inter­faces. The dis­pens­ing machine, devel­oped specif­i­cal­ly to deposit a defined amount of chop­sticks at a spe­cif­ic loca­tion, has char­ac­ter­is­tics that may be applic­a­ble to oth­er scaled-up 3‑D print­ing process­es. The key dif­fer­ence between our approach and more con­ven­tion­al print­ing process­es is that the dis­penser is car­ried by its oper­a­tor as a mobile, hand­held device. Dis­penser devel­op­ment aimed to address the fol­low­ing goals:

1) Production/​assembly of a form with­out the use of a phys­i­cal formwork.

2) Facil­i­ta­tion of con­struc­tion process­es in real-time; out­put is not a pre­de­ter­mined tar­get, but rather is con­stant­ly being adjust­ed with a feed­back sys­tem con­nect­ing scan­ning sys­tem, struc­tur­al analy­sis, and dis­pens­ing process.

3) All print­ing” devices are net­worked such that the process can be mon­i­tored on both the local and glob­al scales.

Our dis­penser facil­i­tat­ed con­struc­tion process­es by act­ing as a link between the phys­i­cal form and the dig­i­tal mod­el. Mul­ti­ple net­worked dis­pensers used at mul­ti­ple loca­tions across a con­struc­tion site can con­tribute to the cre­ation of a sin­gle out­put in a swarm-like process, and the progress can be checked through­out assem­bly. The sys­tem is also capa­ble of scal­ing, some­thing which is lim­it­ed in typ­i­cal 3‑D print­ers because of their size.

Chop­stick Dis­penser Machine Devel­op­ment

Our machine evolved as the project require­ments and ambi­tions evolved. The first iter­a­tion relied entire­ly on the use of man­pow­er. A hand-crank turned the mech­a­nisms with­in the machine and dropped chop­sticks. This evolved into a ver­sion with a DC motor, which sat­is­fied a require­ment for con­sis­tent chop­stick drop­ping speed. In ini­tial ver­sions of machine devel­op­ment, glue was not inte­grat­ed; work­ers added glue by hand with a brush as out­puts were print­ed” with chop­sticks. As machine devel­op­ment pro­gressed, a mod­i­fied glue feed­er was inte­grat­ed into the body of the machine, which helped pre­vent the glue from clog­ging the dis­pens­ing process while also ensur­ing chop­sticks were coat­ed before drop­ping onto the con­struc­tion site.

Space was includ­ed on the machine for an Arduino board, a low-cost, sin­gle-board micro­con­troller that served to reg­u­late drop­ping speed and the amount of glue as well as to indi­cate the rela­tion­ship of the machine to oth­er machines in the con­struc­tion process — and, thus, to pro­duc­tion over­all. Full inte­gra­tion of the Arduino sys­tem could allow inde­pen­dent work at mul­ti­ple sites on a project with mul­ti­ple teams of work­ers. Through its capac­i­ty for adap­ta­tion and the inte­gra­tion of new infor­ma­tion, the sys­tem can pro­duce out­puts using dig­i­tal form­work, smart tech­nolo­gies, and net­worked communications.

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The STIK Pavil­ion was not a pure­ly aca­d­e­m­ic project; it was a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort with Shimizu Cor­po­ra­tion, a Japan­ese con­struc­tion com­pa­ny. Two of their pri­ma­ry con­cerns were:

1. Pro­vid­ing a method of assist­ing less-skilled labor­ers as num­bers of skilled work­ers decline, and

2. Cost-effec­tive on-site management.

Their approach to con­struc­tion includes off-site fab­ri­ca­tion, which allows all indi­vid­ual parts to be fab­ri­cat­ed through indus­tri­al process­es, brought to the site, and assem­bled through human involve­ment and effi­cient assem­bly approaches.

The item miss­ing in their approach was the inte­gra­tion of a net­worked tool for con­struc­tion crews, which we pro­vid­ed. Over time, tools have devel­oped from sim­ple hand tools to pow­er tools.

Net­worked tools are the log­i­cal next devel­op­ment in that progression.

Fig­ure 1. Pro­gres­sion of Tools

Net­worked tools allow oper­a­tors to aug­ment their under­stand­ing of con­struc­tion process­es in real time.

The STIK Pavil­ion project became an oppor­tu­ni­ty to test that capac­i­ty. The dis­penser we devel­oped assists and aug­ments human involve­ment at the con­struc­tion site and dur­ing the con­struc­tion process. Over­all, the ambi­tion of the project extends beyond mak­ing a pavil­ion with chop­sticks to explor­ing the trend of 3‑D print­ing tech­nol­o­gy and exam­in­ing how sim­i­lar print­ing process­es can pro­duce archi­tec­ture at full-scale at the con­struc­tion site. In this sys­tem, humans become agents who can be aug­ment­ed and net­worked through the use of smart tool devices. Human arms and robot­ic arms can work togeth­er to achieve results that would be impos­si­ble with­out collaboration.

Fig­ure 2. Evo­lu­tion of Adap­tive Design Strategies

In past work at the Archi­tec­tur­al Asso­ci­a­tion Design Research Lab in Lon­don, I focused on the sim­u­lat­ed rela­tion­ship between mate­r­i­al com­pu­ta­tion and dig­i­tal com­pu­ta­tion to cre­ate adap­tive design pro­pos­als (Fig­ure 2, Adap­tive Design Process). Sim­u­la­tions would exam­ine a mate­r­i­al behav­ior and then sim­u­late that behav­ior in the dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment before attempt­ing to pro­duce that behav­ior with ana­log mod­els. Sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and ran­dom­iza­tion (pro­duced by humans) was min­i­mized as much as possible.

In the present approach (Fig­ure 2, Adap­tive Con­struc­tion Process), how­ev­er, the human aspect is not only includ­ed in the fab­ri­ca­tion process; it is also embraced. Incon­sis­ten­cies intro­duced to the project by humans are nav­i­gat­ed with net­worked tools, which facil­i­tate ongo­ing mate­r­i­al and dig­i­tal com­pu­ta­tions. Such tools allow for pro­duc­tion of unique out­puts that inte­grate human ran­dom­ness, spec­i­fied forms, and dig­i­tal com­pu­ta­tion. The forms pro­duced through this sys­tem are not com­plete­ly pre-defined through com­pu­ta­tion­al sim­u­la­tion. Although the forms can be sim­u­lat­ed to a degree in a com­pu­ta­tion­al envi­ron­ment, they can­not be repro­duced accu­rate­ly due to lim­i­ta­tions relat­ing to human and mate­r­i­al behav­ior. The net­worked tool facil­i­tates a solu­tion for this issue, and ulti­mate­ly achieves what Amer­i­can econ­o­mist Leo Cherne hint­ed at over a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ago, The com­put­er is incred­i­bly fast, accu­rate, and stu­pid. Man is unbe­liev­ably slow, inac­cu­rate, and bril­liant. The mar­riage of the two is a force beyond cal­cu­la­tion.”1


By Ken­go Kuma

At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo, design and engi­neer­ing have tra­di­tion­al­ly had a pro­duc­tive sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship, and there has been an estab­lished prac­tice of the two fields push­ing each oth­er for­ward. There are few oth­er exam­ples of such part­ner­ship with­in Japan, and even inter­na­tion­al­ly it is rare.

For exam­ple, Pro­fes­sor Ken­zo Tange, who taught design at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo, and Pro­fes­sor Yoshikat­su Tsub­oi, who taught struc­tur­al engi­neer­ing, pro­duced a num­ber of excel­lent archi­tec­tures through their col­lab­o­ra­tions. The Yoyo­gi Olympic Sta­di­um, cre­at­ed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is a sem­i­nal exam­ple of one of their col­lab­o­ra­tive projects. It was not mere­ly a fusion of engi­neer­ing and design (through the appli­ca­tion of a sus­pen­sion struc­ture); the project became pos­si­ble through the inte­gra­tion of the art of tra­di­tion­al car­pen­try skills (which were required to fab­ri­cate geo­met­ri­cal­ly com­plex con­crete form­work) and the imple­men­ta­tion of advanced engi­neer­ing tech­niques of that time.

With recent devel­op­ments in com­pu­ta­tion­al process­es used as a shared com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool, at our new­ly estab­lished T_ADS at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo, we once again inte­grate tech­niques, design, and tra­di­tion in archi­tec­ture and engi­neer­ing. We invit­ed the AA School’s Design Research Lab Co-Direc­tor, Yusuke Obuchi, to join us in 2010 and start­ed T_ADS in 2014. Our ambi­tion is not only to recre­ate the fusions accom­plished by Tange and Tsub­oi, but also to expand archi­tec­tur­al research ter­ri­to­ries by engag­ing with every­day activ­i­ties. In the STIK pavil­ion project, where a pavil­ion was made of one mil­lion chop­sticks (a wood­en mate­r­i­al read­i­ly avail­able through­out Japan), the entire pro­duc­tion process — from the design of the fab­ri­ca­tion machines used to cre­ate the pavil­ion to the design and con­struc­tion of the final struc­ture — was con­duct­ed at T_ADS.

In the indus­tri­al­ized pro­duc­tion sys­tem estab­lished dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry around the world, includ­ing Japan, archi­tec­tur­al man­u­fac­tur­ing process­es and the machin­ery required for them were only avail­able to a hand­ful of large com­pa­nies. I believe that the duty of aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions today is to inves­ti­gate means by which this closed sys­tem could be opened. It’s our mis­sion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo to explore research top­ics that are unthink­able for estab­lished large com­pa­nies and institutions.

For more than 100 years, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo led Japan in indus­tri­al­iza­tion, devel­oped advanced tech­niques for the pro­duc­tion of archi­tec­ture, and con­tributed to con­struc­tion busi­ness­es to con­struct high-qual­i­ty build­ings in Japan. T_ADS aims to con­tin­ue its exper­i­ments with non-con­ven­tion­al projects and mate­ri­als — such as the chop­stick and its rela­tion­ship to a spe­cial­ly-devel­oped dis­pens­ing machine. Through these explo­rations we hope to link the pro­duc­tion of archi­tec­ture more close­ly with soci­ety and pro­vide a means of spec­u­lat­ing on the poten­tials of archi­tec­ture today. It is through this pur­suit that T_ADS also seeks to reshape both the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo and the cul­tures of archi­tec­ture in Japan and beyond.



Gary D. Brooks, Com­put­er Sci­ence: A Neglect­ed Area in Schools of Edu­ca­tion,” The Phi Delta Kap­pan 53: 2 (Oct. 1971): 121 – 122: 122. As LeoCherne has said, The com­put­er is incred­i­bly fast, accu­rate, and stu­pid. Man is unbe­liev­ably slow, inac­cu­rate, and bril­liant. The mar­riage of the two is a force beyond calculation.”2 [note 2: Remarks by Leo Cherne at the Dis­cov­er Amer­i­ca Meet­ing, Brus­sels, June 271968.”]



Yusuke Obuchis work explores con­cepts of mate­ri­al­i­ty, design sys­tems, com­pu­ta­tion­al design tech­niques, and fab­ri­ca­tion process­es in con­tem­po­rary archi­tec­ture and design. He is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo, where he has direct­ed Obuchi Lab­o­ra­to­ry at the Depart­ment of Archi­tec­ture since 2010. Obuchi is also a found­ing co-direc­tor of the Advanced Design Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo, which brings togeth­er a design think tank, a com­pu­ta­tion­al unit, and labs for dig­i­tal fab­ri­ca­tion, sus­tain­able pro­to­typ­ing, media ini­tia­tive, social design, and design prac­tice. Obuchi was co-direc­tor of the Design Research Lab­o­ra­to­ry at the Archi­tec­tur­al Asso­ci­a­tion (Lon­don) from 2005 to 2010 and course mas­ter and unit mas­ter there from 2003 to 2005. He worked pre­vi­ous­ly for Reis­er-Umem­o­to in New York and ROTO Archi­tects in Los Ange­les. His research projects have been exhib­it­ed and pub­lished wide­ly in the U.S. and Europe, includ­ing at venues such as the Nation­al Tri­en­ni­al Exhi­bi­tion at the Coop­er Hewitt Muse­um, the Archi­tec­ture Bien­ni­al Bei­jing, the Archi­tec­ture Bien­ni­al Rot­ter­dam, the Zurich Design Muse­um, Tokyo Design­ers Week, and the Barcelona Design Muse­um. Email: yobuchi@​gmail.​com

Ken­go Kuma is an archi­tect, writer, and edu­ca­tor. He received a master’s degree in archi­tec­ture from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo and a Ph.D. from Keio Uni­ver­si­ty. He estab­lished Spa­tial Design Stu­dio in 1987, Ken­go Kuma & Asso­ciates in 1990, and the Europe branch of the lat­ter in Paris in 2008. Since 2009, Kuma has been a pro­fes­sor in the Grad­u­ate School of Archi­tec­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo, where he explores the rela­tion­ship between prac­tice and edu­ca­tion. He taught pre­vi­ous­ly at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, Keio Uni­ver­si­ty, and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign. Kuma’s many awards include the AIA DuPONT Bene­dic­tus Award, the Togo Mura­no Award, the Spir­it of Nature Wood Archi­tec­ture Award (Fin­land), and the Mainichi Art Award. In 2009, he was dec­o­rat­ed as an offici­er de l’Ordre des Arts et des Let­tres by the French Min­is­ter of Cul­ture. Kuma is an Archi­tecte DESA, Archi­tecte inscrit au Tableau de l’Ordre des Archi­tectes, Inter­na­tion­al Fel­low of the Roy­al Insti­tute of British Archi­tects (RIBA), and Hon­orary Fel­low of the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Archi­tects (AIA).