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English wheels and robots: MS.Arch student Vazquez explores novel metal-forming process at Zahner

Elena Vazquez, Penn State architecture graduate student and Paraguayan Fulbright scholar, had exactly ten weeks to combine a 19th-century metal-forming machine and a cutting-edge 6-axis CNC robot, as well as write the computational design software to control a novel manufacturing process. The ambitious project was part of Vazquez’s summer internship at Zahner (an internationally acclaimed engineering and fabrication company), and her time at the Kansas City company has helped shaped the future role of robotics in metal curvature design.

Zahner is responsible for digitally fabricating some of the most unconventional and eccentric architectural façades and features in the world. They produced the exteriors for notable structures including the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and recently completed the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.

Although there are a lot of interns at Zahner, Vazquez was the only intern in Research and Development (R&D) during summer 2017. Beyond nominal experience with parametric design, computational design tools and robotics, she had not done much related work. Vazquez enthusiastically jumped into the project, working one-on-one with her supervisor, James Coleman, Zahner’s R&D lead engineer. Coleman had a lot of other projects to manage, but Vazquez spent all of her time researching curvatures in metal fabrication. 

Since architects and designers have significantly increased the demand for double-curved architectural forms for modern projects, Zahner recognized a need to facilitate a more manufacturing- and cost-efficient process. Historically, curved metal forms have been created with the English Wheel, which produces precise and graceful curves, but the process is costly, time-consuming, and hand-driven. Leveraging novel research and programming, Coleman and Vazquez introduced the English Wheel to Zahner’s new robot, “Ruby” (a Kuka KR 270 R2700 6-axis industrial robot arm). The two-person team set out to combine these two technologies to enable affordable, precise, automated, and repeatable creation of complex curvatures. Vazquez described: “It was both very challenging and exciting.”

“I think that the good thing about the robot and the English wheel combined, is that the English wheel is a very flexible machine – a single machine that can create different kinds of shapes. The whole idea behind the project is to figure out how to create predictable forms, and make it repeatable. And we can make a smart fabrication system where instead of having a person do it, we would have a robot do it.” – Elena Vazquez

During her day-to-day work at Zahner, Vazquez had three aspects to focus on. One was computational design – making software that can translate geometry into manufacturing indications. Vazquez adds, “in other words, I was creating a recipe to create a given shape.” A second aspect was testing to see what kinds of surfaces the technology could generate. Coleman and Vazquez experimented a lot to see if they could produce their intended results and if they could create the same shape twice. Her third aspect of research was making a “one-to-one mockup test” to generate shapes using the Zahner framework. Through this process, Vazquez improved her software skills and increased her familiarity with new tools. “I think it’s easier to learn something when you have a goal or problem in mind. It also makes it fun to learn.”

Vazquez had exactly ten weeks to figure out several ways to tackle the problem. In addition to having a strict timeline, the excitement was increased by other limitations: “specific tools, a specific goal and real constraints.” The dynamics required her to push herself to use her time wisely and efficiently and to set realistic goals. She contrasted working in an industry setting with school: “In academia, you have less constraints, you can dream more. But this is a different learning experience – it’s more ‘real world!’” She began as a novice about her task at hand, but she learned a ton and made the most of her experience. “The constraints made it exciting.” Her biggest revelation: “as computational designers, we can solve a lot more than we can even imagine right now.”

When describing her experience, Vazquez said, “The best thing at Zahner is the human talent. It is not about the machines as much as the people. It is a very nice environment… they don’t turn down clients, they always say yes to challenges, they say ‘yes, that’s crazy enough!’ This is what makes the company really unique.” Zahner combines aesthetics with technology and they support an interaction between designers and the fabricator. Vazquez elucidates, “Architects like Frank Gehry push fabricators to develop new tools to materialize dreams. It becomes a balance between designers looking for shapes, and fabricators who are trying to keep up, or sometimes the fabricator proposes new ways of generating new forms.”

Vazquez has an undergraduate degree in architecture that she describes as traditional, but after her internship she says, “doing summer internships is great, because it is a different learning experience to go to industries, companies, and architectural studios. Internships are a ‘must’ in the design profession.” Working at Zahner helped to develop her goals. “I like to solve these kinds of design problems, using computational design tools and high-end digital fabrication. It was super exciting, and I decided that this is what I want to do more in the future.”

Vazquez sees her time at Zahner as an invaluable experience and opportunity to learn new things. She says, “I got to kick start the research, and Zahner will use the technology very soon for specific clients, which is very exciting for me to think about.”

Vazquez will graduate from the Penn State MS.Arch program in May 2018 and is applying for Ph.D. studies in interdisciplinary fields combining science, architecture, and design. While at Penn State, Vazquez is immersed and serving as the teaching assistant for a robotics class.  Despite the depth and magnitude of her research, she is not all work with no play. Outside of school, she can often be found enjoying her favorite hobby – running and hiking in the local state parks. 

Student Elena Vazquez with CNC robot. Image courtesy Zahner.
Student Elena Vazquez with CNC robot