Timber Build of the Future? AI, Robots & 4D Printing in Action

Automation leads to 50% reduction in material consumption, 63% reduction in emissions and 75% in time saving.

Sun 20 Aug 23


Timber-based construction is amongst the industries most impacted by the push towards AI and automation.

According to a report published by Goldman Sachs, the construction industry has 20% exposure to automation and AI replacement – including 3D printing and robotics.

The University of Stuttgart and the University of Freiburg have used robots and automated manufacturing to construct and install a domed timber pavilion at the University of Freiburg campus.

The livMatS Biomimetic Shell prototype uses a combination of computational design methods, robotic fabrication and automated assembly.

FIT Freiburg Center for Interactive Materials and Bioinspired Technologies, University of Freiburg, 2023. Footage courtesy of @icdstuttgart.

According to the University of Stuttgart, “The building combines the different research approaches of the two Excellence Clusters to achieve an architectural synthesis.”

The two clusters in question are the University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design and Construction and the Institute for Building Structures and Structural Design.

The project team, led by Professor Achim Menges and Professor Jan Knippers, claim that automation led to a 50% reduction in material consumption and a 63% reduction in emissions compared to traditional timber construction.

Professor Achim Menges and Professor Jan Knipper in front of the Maison Fibre at the Venice Architecture Biennale. (Image Credit: Supplied ©ICD / ITKE / IntCDC from the University of Stuttgart)

Located at the FIT Freiburg Center for Interactive Materials and Bioinspired Technologies, it will be a research space for developing innovative, cross-disciplinary research ideas.

The internal view of the livMatS Biomimetic Shell prototype. ( (Photo Credit: Roland Halbe, ©ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart.

The 640 square metre pavilion envelope consists of 127 hollow timber cassettes joined together by cross-screwed joints.

The open cassettes consist of a top and bottom layer of three-layer spruce boards and edge beams assembled as building modules. 

Glue-laminated timber beams fortify the open cassettes. (Image Credit: Supplied ©ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart)

The building uses a hybrid of low-carbon materials with a thermally activated floor slab made of recycled concrete.  

A diagram showing the doomed pavilion shell. (Image Credit: Supplied ©ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart)

The floor works with low flow temperatures from local geothermal energy, ensuring thermal indoor comfort in the winter while mitigating high heat loads in summer. 

The pavilion maximises thermal heating, storing heat in winter and mitigating heat in summer. (Image Credit: Supplied ©ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart)

The project also has a skylight incorporating a weather-responsive shading system.

The system was developed in the universities’ research into the biomimetic principle of moisture-controlled plant cones opening and closing. 

In addition, the pavilion also includes a ‘Solar Gate’ that comprises 424 self-shaping shading elements made of bio-based materials and programmed using a 4D printing process.

The skygate. (Image Credit: Supplied ©ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart)

Robotic fabrication was an essential part of the construction process. 

Archinect reports that individual hollow timber cassettes were prefabricated using a transportable 7-axis robot platform. 

Robotic Offsite Prefabrication. (Image Credit: Supplied ©ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart)

A 12m robot platform combined the cassettes into four pieces of engineered timber with lengths of up to 3.5 metres. 

The individual hollow cassettes were joined using a heavy-duty robot from digitally pre-formatted wooden parts.

Robotic Offsite Prefabrication. (Image Credit: Supplied ©ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart)

According to the project team, robotics reduced construction time by 75% over manual construction.

Wood Central understands pieces were glued, milled, drilled, and cut using a saw blade “with accuracy in the sub-millimetre range,” the project team said.

Using 4D printing, the team successfully fabricated and assembled unique components, including lights and acoustic elements, directly onto the hollow assets.

The University of Stuttgart used robots and 4D Printing to process, manufacture and install a timber pavilion (Photo Credit: ICD ITKE IntCDC University of Stuttgart)
Robots and 4D Printing were used to process, manufacture and install a timber pavilion (Photo Credit: ICD ITKE IntCDC University of Stuttgart)

This form of human-machine interaction in the fabrication process allows different actors to cooperate in a shared digital process chain, allowing for practical, digitally-augmented handcrafted fabrication of complex components with high precision.

Cyber-Physical Onsite Assembly. (Photo Credit: ICD/ITKE/IntCDC University of Stuttgart)

Lightweight timber structures are suitable for automated on-site assembly; the team said, “due to the high precision in prefabrication and the low component weight.”

The components were joined on-site by a robotic spider crane that picked them up with a vacuum gripper, automatically placed them in position, and held them until a second spider crane automatically screwed them together.


  • Wood Central

    Wood Central is Australia’s first and only dedicated platform covering wood-based media across all digital platforms. Our vision is to develop an integrated platform for media, events, education, and products that connect, inform, and inspire the people and organisations who work in and promote forestry, timber, and fibre.


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