Robotic Fabrication for the Thermoplastic Housing Building Technology

Project Description

The thermoplastic housing building technology is a research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in collaboration with the Singapore University of Technology and Design with sponsorship from the SUTD-MIT International Design Centre. Its motivation is to rethink the production of affordable housing using  automated  CAD/CAM  design,  analysis  and  fabrication  methods,  advanced  composite construction materials and precision robotic manufacturing processes. It suggests a radical approach to pre-fabricated and post-modular housing design by shifting the underling paradigm from industrial standardization to mass customization.


Digital Design & Fabrication

Conventional workflows employed for robotic manufacture are slow, convoluted and repetitive: small changes require the regeneration of substantial amount of information. The interoperability between CAD, CAM and proprietary machine languages is also far from ideal requiring additional effort in translation. Our design fabrication system unifies the chain of events and compresses the process into one agile design to manufacture workflow with the ultimate goal of rebalancing the relationship between the creative and the technical aspects of design, development and production.


We observe that the challenges fall invariably into one of the following categories:

  • Representation: machine behavior is not easy to predict as it depends on multiple spatial and temporal parameters which are difficult to mentally track.
  • Geometry: machine program generation from geometry is a task that is not trial to automate as it often requires ambiguity resolution by human intervention. There is seldom a single best machining strategy but often a range of, requiring careful selection.
  • Physical: the interactions between material, the lab/factory and the robot are often unpredictable. Stock material positioning and various forms of clashes offer a glimpse of typical problems with robotic manufacture.

Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing

We approached those issues with the development of an interactive simulation application as an extension to a popular architectural CAD system. Plastique, the name of our CAD/CAM application, fuses several design computation paradigms:

  • Parametric Associativity: modification of source geometry and machine paths triggers automatic robotic program regeneration.
  • Geometry Augmentation: model entities are tagged with fabrication metadata such as preferred robot position and orientation using geometric markers or data tags.
  • Interactivity: visualization of motion simulation using animation that solves both inverse and forward kinematics dynamically displaying errors and warnings.
  • Information-rich editing: using overlapped representations such as design model-trees, robot code views and tabular robot state data editors.


Fig. 5. a. Robot View: interactive visualization, b. Fabrication Properties: spatial and machine configuration parameters, c. Motion Planning: machine path generation and sequencing, d. Code View: KLR viewer, e. Simulation Control: code editor and simulation playback system.


Mark Goulthorpe
Project Lead
Associate Professor, MIT


Stylianos Dritsas
Digital Fabrication
Assistant Professor, SUTD



Dritsas, S. and Goulthorpe, M., 2013, An Automated Robotic Manufacturing Process For The Thermoplastic Panel Building Technology, In the proceedings of the Computer Aided Architectural Design Futures Conference, Global Design and Local Materialization, CAAD Futures Conference, Shanghai, China.