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University of Bath

Automating Concrete Construction

ACORN targets the Construction2025 goals by creating digital tools to design complex-shaped concrete beams, columns & slabs for automated off-site manufacture.

A curved concrete beam made with fabric formwork
The project explores new, efficient concrete forms, such as beams made with fabric formwork

Automating Concrete Construction (ACORN) is a Bath-led, cross-University project that aims to dramatically improve whole-life construction sector sustainability and productivity by defining a holistic approach to the manufacture, assembly, reuse, and deconstruction of concrete buildings, leading to a healthier, safer, built environment.

ACORN will drive acceptance of a new culture in the construction industry that embraces the concept of using enough material – and no more. This will require new manufacturing techniques that can take advantage of new robotic technologies, sensors and materials, to maximise performance against realistic loadings and environmental conditions, alongside new approaches to the design process.

Dr Paul Shepherd, who is teaming up with colleagues at the Universities of Cambridge and Dundee, says, "We want to change the way structures are designed and constructed in order to make them more efficient and to reduce the impact the excess use of concrete has on the environment".

Currently, up to half of the concrete used in buildings is unnecessary, and is only there because it is shaped using planar formwork, used since Roman times. This leads to inefficient prismatic shapes for the beams, columns and floor slabs, which is wasteful, architecturally constraining and a major driver of embodied emissions in construction. This need not be the case.

Concrete is initially a liquid and can form structures of any shape, given the right mould. Something as simple as allowing beams, columns and floor-slabs to have the shape they need to do their job, rather than the shape they need to be easily formed, allows a complete rethink of the way material is used in our buildings. We can begin to ask questions like what shape should they be, what material should we make them from, how can we reinforce the elements efficiently, how can we take into account whole-life value and how should we organise our design processes to take advantage? ACORN will answer all of these questions.

The novelty of ACORN lies in the creation of integrated end-to-end digital processes to automate the design and manufacture of non-prismatic building elements. It capitalises on the recent proliferation of affordable robotics, and brings them into an industry ripe for a step-change in sustainability and productivity. ACORN aims to unlock the new geometrical potential of robotics and automation for concrete by developing digital design methods alongside new physical construction processes.

ACORN's approach builds on the well-established computational design expertise of the team, who have developed innovative digital tools and techniques to optimise the shape, layout, structure and façade of buildings during the design phase. It will extend this approach downstream in the building process, to encompass fabrication.

ACORN is funded by UKRI through its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund via their Transforming Construction Research Leadership scheme, to enhance sector-wide sustainability and productivity.

The project team includes Professor Tim Ibell (Bath), Dr Saverio Spadea (Dundee) and Dr John Orr and Dr Ajith Parlikad (Cambridge).

Find out more at the project website, automated.construction.