CAC Grants $50,000 for College of Design Robotic Arm

Nov 29, 2018
Iowa State University’s Computation Advisory Committee (CAC) recently approved a $50,000 funding request from the College of Design to purchase a robotic arm to advance teaching within the Department of Architecture.

After joining the university in 2015, architecture assistant professors Shelby Doyle and Nick Senske co-founded the ISU Computation + Construction Lab (CCL), designed to bring the latest tools and technologies into their department, from 3D printers to plasma cutters. The pair took another step forward with the initiative during CAC’s Oct. 25 meeting, where they presented a proposal to purchase and install a six-axis, 10-kilogram payload industrial robotic arm. 

Since the early 1990s, CAC has overseen expenditures of the university’s student technology fee, and the committee’s approximately 20 faculty, staff, and student members approved the $50,000 proposal for a robotic arm as its next supported project the same night it was presented. 

The project received final approval from university President Wendy Wintersteen in early November. 

“We focus on funding opportunities that support technology and education, and the use of robotics is where the architecture field is headed,” said Alex Ramirez, CAC chair and associate professor in veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine. “We need to be leaders for our students by exposing them to new technologies and preparing them for the future.” 

The robotic arm will initially be housed in the CCL, where it will impact approximately 50 graduate and undergraduate students each semester through the development of architectural robotics seminars and workshops. When Iowa State’s future Student Innovation Center opens, the arm will be moved to the College of Design’s design-build studio space in the new building to increase exposure to students and the university community. 

The robotic arm will be used to print and carve a wide range of materials, from rigid foam and clay to dissolvable plastics.  It will also be used for innovative construction processes such as 3D printing, bending, weaving and drawing.

Pending the development of workflows and safety protocols, Doyle plans to teach an architectural robotics design-build course in spring 2020. 

“It has always been a goal of ours to bring a robotic arm into the department; robots are the future of construction, and we need to expose our students to them early in their education,” Senske said. “CAC has been supportive of the College of Design for years. They have helped us build labs, improve our classrooms, and upgrade equipment. We are grateful the university understands our needs and that CAC exists to provide internal funding for requests like ours.”

The CAC funding will be used to purchase the robotic arm, teaching pendant, adjustable stand, software, and safety equipment, as well as cover installation and introductory training. To maximize teaching and learning opportunities, the College of Design has agreed to provide $50,000 in matching funds to acquire a second robotic arm. Having two arms on campus will allow for larger classes and more machine time, along with the ability to complete more sophisticated fabrication projects by using the robots simultaneously and collaboratively, Doyle said.

Initial project timelines estimate that an Introduction to Architectural Robotics class could be held as soon as fall 2019, followed by both robots moving to the Student Innovation Center in spring 2020. However, specific details of implementation are being finalized with College of Design administration. 


“This is truly the kind of innovative project CAC is proud to support,” said Interim Vice President and CIO Kristen Constant, who serves on the committee. “Experience in digital fabrication will provide students with tremendous creative opportunities and a competitive advantage, allowing them to hone a modern skillset before leaving Iowa State and entering the professional workforce.”