This week at CeBIT, the world’s largest computer expo, design innovators Reed Kram and Clemens Weisshaar unveiled their latest project, ROBOCHOP. The large scale interactive installation consists of a slicing, dicing bright orange robot which takes its orders from a custom-designed software controlled by users from around the world. By visiting the Robochop website, the user is able to sculpt a prefabricated durable foam cube into a piece of furniture in real time. The piece is then packaged and shipped to anywhere in the world, free of charge. Connecting anyone with internet access to heavy duty industrial technology, the project is just a glimpse at what the Internet of Things has to offer. 032c interviewed Kram and Weisshaar about their robotic creation and the future of design.
DARRYL NATALE: This project seems to be a natural extension of Breeding Tables (2003) and Outrace (2010). Can you describe the origins of Robochop with regards to your previous projects?
REED KRAM and CLEMENS WEISSHAAR: With Breeding Tables we pioneered the idea of the Dynamic Blueprint, defining a design not as a static drawing or data set but rather as a set of rules, a framework. We used the analogy of a genetic code with the potential to manipulate individual genes, which we delivered as a piece of software that lets the user design an object within certain limitations. Everything drawn in software is produceable and all the steps into the machine are taken care of by the software. This allowed us to design an infinite number of tables, using industrial machines as if they were printers, but we did distribute the software.
With Outrace we opened the gates for the first time. It was the first attempt at letting members of the online public globally take over a robotic plant. And people from across the world did so. The robots only produced messages written in light however, not physical objects. This became the model for what we are doing with Robochop.
When we released Breeding Tables in 2003, the design community was shocked. There was so much concern that “civilians” could design things. Or even worse: Algorithms. The German newspaper TAZ called us cynics and said we were using the worst scientific inventions (genetic manipulation) and bringing them into the house. There are still people who question the idea of releasing powerful design and manufacturing tools to the public, but the evidence on the shelf behind the robots speaks for itself. There are so many people with incredible creative potential who don’t have access to manufacturing machinery and it is a pleasure to make it available to them. Even if the results are sometimes diabolical.
What are the remaining barriers for rolling out this kind of design process on a large scale?
There aren’t any. The system is working flawlessly and theoretically we could just keep it running. But it takes a lot of brain power and teams of very intelligent people with conviction. Doing something like this is expensive and complicated, so the initiative has to come from the industry. In Germany, the Mittelstand is in the perfect position to do this because many companies are still run by their owners. It’s a different breed of capitalism where vision trumps short-term shareholder value thinking.
Is full automation possible? What might the design process look like in 10 or 20 years?
Possible and necessary. The big promise with 3D printing is that geometry can be simply printed. With conventional processes this is more complex because you have to tackle more complicated tasks such as milling strategies, cutting parameters, and so on.
Now these processes are beginning to be written as software which can be automated. We imagine a house with raw materials and a machine park that lets people process those materials and push them into a logistics chain.
Do you think that increased automation and becoming further removed from the tactile elements of design might make it more difficult to stumble upon innovation by accident?
We believe the opposite is the case – if we solve issues once and forever and share the solution in the form of software code there is more time for creativity, for eureka moments and, most importantly, for play. At the moment there are still armies of people across the world solving identical issues at the same time – if we reduce duplicate work there is more capacity to tackle the next one big problem. On to the next one, on to the next one. In a Jay Z way.
What technological restrictions are holding you back?
The restrictions holding back innovation are rarely on the technological side. Innovation is being choked across Europe. The problem is that we have 19th century political institutions dealing with 21st century problems. And 20th century cartels and trade barriers that need to be gotten rid of once and forever.
ROBOCHOP will continue until Friday, March 20, 2015.