To recap, my project Beneath the Sea aims to develop an optimised structure to host coral larvae and marine organisms. The project goal was to create a prototype for an artificial reef structure made of sustainable material and using digital fabrication methods. While my first blog post, Beneath the Sea. Part 1: Exploration, gave insight into widening my perspective through general research, the post Part 2: Transformation conveyed an impression of my first concrete steps in 3D modelling as well as using software and hardware environments for digital fabrication.
This article focuses on the complexity of developing and iterating a digital fabrication workflow in a multidisciplinary setting. It shows how collaborating on adjunct projects can function as a key driver for mutual learning in an interdisciplinary group and how this – in my case – paved the way to my own project’s success.
Architecture, Marine Biology and Fine Arts
During the first weeks of working on my project under the supervision of architects from the Gramazio & Kohler Research group at the ETH Zurich, I discovered that I was not the only person investigating artificial coral substrate with 3D printing. In fact, at the chair for Digital Building Technologies (DBT) in the same building, the architect Mathias Bernhard was investigating 3D geometries for Ulrike Pfreundt, a postdoctoral researcher and a marine biologist on a mission quite similar to mine. Ulrike Pfreundt’s research aimed to develop a deeper understanding of the influence of the water stream in the deposition of coral larvae onto a surface. Concretely, they were producing different types of geometries to optimise coral larvae settlement.
Simultaneously, senior researchers at Gramazio & Kohler Research were interested to explore whether my project goal could possibly be achieved through a state-of-the-art method of digital fabrication called “Impact Clay” or “Rapid Clay Formation”. This process uses a robotically operated technique and consists of assembling discrete elements of clay according to a certain model or path. In order to scale it up, the plan was to further investigate this technique in the context of a research thesis for students of the “Master of Advanced Studies in Architecture and Digital Fabrication” (MAS ETH DFAB).
These unexpected convergences led to the decision that technique and purpose could be combined in a collaborative project. The three-month project “Computational Coral Clay Cities (CCCC)” started in June 2019 and was led by the two MAS students Eleni Skevaki and Nicolas Feihl.
From Theory to Application
At the beginning of the project, the big question for Eleni Skevaki and Nicolas Feihl was: is there a way to create an artificial reef using algorithmic design, robotic manufacturing techniques and clay as a sustainable material? In their research, they were tutored by the three architects David Jenny, Jesús Medina and Mathias Bernhard as well as Ulrike Pfreundt and me. Each tutor had a specific role in guiding the research – whereas the others provided the expertise in computational modelling, robotic application and underwater conditions, mine focused on the utilisation of the material and the importance of geometry variation for reef structure.
One main challenge of the project was to find suitable ways of collecting relevant knowledge from the participating disciplines, in order to inform the overall fabrication process for producing a functioning artefact. At the same time, supporting this project constituted an amazing source of inspiration for my own artistic research, as well as a unique opportunity to channel my long-standing experience as an artist and scuba diver into an even more meaningful direction.
When implementing the project, the initial phase consisted in working with a UR5 six-axis robot. For one month, a batch of tests were run with the aim of understanding the different material behaviours. Which clay has the strongest resistance to deformation? How does the clay react under this type of pressure? After how many layers will the design collapse? These were the kind of questions we attempted to answer through the tests.
In the next phase, the students started to investigate design logics. Simultaneously, they created patterns with different roughness and amplitudes together with Ulrike Pfreundt. The first prototypes were then tested with flumes (open water channels) by simulating a flow where some particles are introduced into the water and illuminated with a laser sheet. This technique, called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV), visualises the stream and therefore allows users to see whether the pattern resists the stream. The PIV technique allowed researchers from the ETH Environmental Fluid Mechanics (EFM) to analyse which structures reduce the stream and help the coral larvae settle. Their findings helped Eleni Skevaki and Nicolas Feihl to finalise the full-scale model.
As soon as the fabrication workflow was established and controlled, the students started to work on a bigger robotic setup called UR10 to scale up the final demonstrator. Moreover, relevant real-world data was linked to the design logic and influenced the generation of geometries.
For this, we obtained data sets from the MaRHE Center in the Maldives. They provided us with information about water currents (direction and force), the UV and temperature exposure, cavities for fish and a great deal more. All of these aspects informed the growth aggregation logic. The result was a very organic shape displaying overhanging elements, cavities and height differences.
After three months of trials, weekly meetings, and a lot of effort, the final prototype of the CCCC project was created. It was through a joint effort that the set goal could be reached: an artificial structure that responds to crucial aspects of marine ecosystems, made of sustainable material and manufactured using pioneering technology.
Project Findings and Outlook
Looking back, this learning journey has been an incredible source of inspiration and has allowed me to expand my own knowledge. Supporting the CCCC project gave me a better understanding of the logic of digital fabrication processes and the influence of the water stream on the settlement of coral larvae. Most importantly, however, I experienced the value of interdisciplinary collaboration. Through all of this, my own project Beneath the Sea grew tremendously.