Swinburne University has formally opened its ProtoLAB new digital fabrication facility, an expanded state-of-the-art workshop that is home to industrial robots for large-scale architectural design prototyping.

The ProtoLAB supports students in design, engineering and architecture and meets the needs of academic research, testing and industry partnered work.

“In research, it supports conversations with research partners,” says Dean of Design, Professor Jane Burry. “We also now have the space and large-scale robotics to undertake prototyping, fabrication and assembly at architectural scale.”

The lab is equipped with a new high-speed HP Jet Fusion 3D Printer that allows students to print complex geometry without needing to remove support material. Also in constant use are a new Okuma CNC turn mill; seven laser cutters; a Biesse CNC router; a Multicam router; two KUKA collaborative robots designed to work with humans; and a new larger KUKA KR120 robot.

“The KUKA KR120 runs on a 7.9m linear track, and reaches out to 3m,” says Andrew Tarlington, Manager of Technical Services, Architecture and Design. “It has a sync table at one end and a horizontal positioner along one side for multi-axis machining. Computer programs, and the students tethered to them are getting smarter, utilising parametric software to control not only a model’s shape but also the robot or machine attached.

“By using data and analytics they work out what’s required, reducing waste material and improving user experience. Generative design and parametric design are not new ways of working, but we are progressively finding easier ways of producing designs, and communicating to the machines. By teaching the full potential of Industry 4.0 machines, we enable students to translate these capabilities back into their designs with a deeper technical knowledge and understanding.”

A ‘soft prototyping lab’ integrates with design studios. As ideas developed in the studios mature and upscale, they are translated to the main workshop to use the large-scale robot to fabricate at full scale, embracing the added risks and complexities that entails.

“The ProtoLAB provides the luxury of space,” says Professor Burry. “Multiple classes and research activities occur simultaneously. Time-consuming fabrication activities continue alongside student teaching. In design, access to a top-quality workshop is a major attractor for both students and researchers for testing and developing ideas. The quality of the workshop and expertise of staff is critical, and regular access invaluable.”

Located on Swinburne’s Hawthorn campus, the ProtoLAB design features a glass façade, allowing prototyping, digital fabrication, design and making to easily be observed.

“Often people will be staring in, checking out what our fantastic students are creating,” Tarlinton adds. “Children press their faces against the glass, mesmerised, watching something being machined out of a block of foam – as if to appear by magic.”