A Pioneer of Digital Fabrication Heralds the Machine-Made Revolution in Architecture

After two decades of experience in robotics-based fabrication, Andreas Froech, founder of Machineous Consultants, wants more control over his work and is reclaiming his role in the design process.

The Barbarian Group, Superdesk
Designed by the architect Clive Wilkinson, the project’s centerpiece was the 1,100-foot-long working surface dubbed the Superdesk. Andreas Froech of Machineous Consultants was brought in for his fabrication expertise—in particular, his mastery with the CNC-machining necessary for the desk’s realization. “The project was almost facade-scale, it was so big,” Froech says. “At the same time, it’s really a very large piece of furniture, but in too tight of a space to use scaffolding.”

Courtesy Michael Moran/Clive Wilkinson

It’s another monotonously sunny day in Santa Monica, and Andreas Froech glides up on his bicycle. He greets me with an easy smile, a little breathless from his ride, and takes off his helmet, not bothering to fix his hair. We talk over coffee in the courtyard of the Frank Gehry–designed Edgemar, where, despite the California drought, the fountain burbles with relentless optimism. Edgemar—the oh-so-L.A. mini-mall-on-acid completed in 1989—seems the perfect venue for us to talk about technology, making things, and other adventures in architecture.

The signatures of Froech’s expertise can be seen in works by architects like Greg Lynn, Zaha Hadid, Hitoshi Abe, Patrick Tighe, and others working on the outer edges of digital practice. Trained as an architect, Froech is one of a rare breed of designer-technologists who have been forging a link between the worlds of robotic fabrication and architecture. Since he first began working with industrial robots in 2006, Froech has been mapping the territory for how this technology can be implemented in design. Spanning the birth and coming of age of computational design, his pathbreaking career is one of the reasons architecture and robotics can be articulated in the same breath.

I had asked that we meet at Froech’s fabrication shop, but there was one problem—there is no shop, not anymore. Just a few years ago, Froech had helmed a 20,000-square-foot fabrication hub out of a Gardena, California, industrial park, a few miles away from where Elon Musk’s Space X operates. Here, he ran four large Nachi robots—the same multi-axis robot arms used in the auto industry, which Froech had repurposed for design applications. They were the hardware that powered Machineous, the custom fabrication and research-and-development company Froech founded in 2008. It closed this year, only to resurface as Machineous Consultants.

Now, for the first time, Froech finds himself unburdened by the heavy responsibilities and long hours concomitant of running a shop. “I wanted to free myself up,” Froech says, explaining his intentions. Machineous was reaching a point where it was attracting the kinds of repetitive, off-the-shelf projects the 46-year-old fabricator isn’t so interested in. Being the “shop guy” presented other limitations. By the time designs would get to him, they had already gone through complex chains of decision-making that he hadn’t been involved in. This could mean problems and inefficiencies in fabrication, and, of course, a lot of time spent fixing them. All these potential mishaps could be avoided, he realized, if he were more embedded in the design team.

Froech, 46, founder of Machineous Consultants, is a pioneer of digital fabrication.

Courtesy Andreas Froech

Seeking to get back to the center of design, Froech made a radical decision. He shuttered the shop, moved the robots into storage, and pursued an alternate, almost back-to-basics directive. Doing so would allow him to return to what he had been doing, namely, troubleshooting new design inroads for robotic machinery: “Originally, I had to come up with my own way of thinking about these machines and teach myself how to use them.” He explains further, “The first robot guys could tell you a lot about making cars, but they didn’t know how to do the things I was interested in. There’s really an art to how a robot acts on a piece, in how you convert code to movement.”

It’s this unique approach—the mechanic-tinkerer meets computer scientist—that has drawn people to Froech. “Andreas is a pretty unique character, and an important one,” says Greg Lynn, the Los Angeles architect and one of the earliest adopters of computing in design. As one of Lynn’s graduate students at Columbia University during the mid-1990s, Froech was among the earliest practitioners to investigate digital fabrication processes. “He was always interested in how to bridge that gap between the computer model and the building,” Lynn says. “He’s one of the first in the world to be doing this.”

Froech was working for Greg Lynn Form when, in 1996, Lynn was invited to teach at UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Froech followed him there, and it wasn’t long before he spotted the CNC machine at the engineering school. According to Lynn, Froech was the “the first instructor to teach with a CNC machine,” which he installed in the architectural school in 1997 and operated using a then-rarified system—later adopted by a handful of elite institutions, including ETH Zurich and the Applied Arts Vienna.

Greg Lynn Form, Blobwall
Froech’s first proper commission, Blobwall was developed by L.A. architect Greg Lynn, who had taught Froech at Columbia in the mid-1990s. Lynn’s approach was computational, and, as such, each of the hollow units interlock with mind-boggling precision, obviating the need for any binding agents. “The project was designed and developed with Andreas’s capabilities in mind,” Lynn says. “He is able to communicate fundamental principles to architects so they are better designers.”

Courtesy Machineous Consultants

A decade later, in 2006, Froech bought his own robot and the first incarnation of Machineous was born. Armed with a robot, his next challenge was finding clients. “I was literally going from office to office and saying, ‘I have a robot. What can I do for you?’” he recalls. His first independent commission came from Lynn, whose work employed complex geometries that could only be realized through the use of robots. He asked Froech to undertake fabricating the Blobwall, which would represent a watershed moment in computer-aided design. Lynn had originally designed the freestanding assemblage of hollow plastic rotomolded units for a house project that came to naught. A prototype was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and was later adopted by Panelite as a custom wall system.

Around this time, Froech was also working with Patrick Tighe, who teaches at the University of Southern California School of Architecture and asked Froech to execute a number of projects. For Sierra Bonita (2010), an affordable housing project in West Hollywood, Froech fashioned exquisite custom CNC-cut facade screens. There was also the Out of Memory (2011) installation at SCI-Arc, where Froech’s robot carved out space in a mountain of foam that filled the school’s gallery space—a ballet of seamless movement, flying sparks, and spent foam core. “Andreas has this special ability to leverage knowledge about technology, fabrication techniques, and innovative materials that makes it possible to realize really complex projects,” says Tighe, echoing Lynn.

Greg Lynn, SITE Sante Fe
Froech went on to work with Lynn on numerous projects, including the architect’s Recycled Toy Furniture installation at the 2008 Venice Biennale, which won the Golden Lion award, and Fountain in 2010 for UCLA’s Hammer Museum. In 2012, Froech executed fiberglass facade elements for the contemporary art hall SITE Santa Fe.

Courtesy Kate Russell Photography/SITE Sante Fe

After feverishly completing a number of projects through 2014, including, most recently, facade elements for Tighe’s Courtyard La Brea in Los Angeles, Lynn’s SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico, and Clive Wilkinson’s spectacular Superdesk for the Barbarian Group in New York, Froech began looking more critically at the whole process of design and delivery. “I started asking myself, ‘What does it mean to make these complicated things, and how can we do it better?’” he says. By experiencing firsthand the difficulties that arise when projects are executed in a more traditional way, where there is little communication between designers, fabricators, and contractors until installation, he saw opportunities to improve the process. This is where Machineous Consultants comes into play.

The founding of his new venture prompted Froech to reach back into storage and dust off his robots. “I have a small one in my living room right now,” he says with more than a touch of excitement in his voice. He had been putting the machine through the paces in preparation for a panel and workshop at the Facades+ conference in Los Angeles in February. The workshop, “Introduction to Robotic Construction,” hints at where all of this is headed. Because of new Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules, robots running off a specific set of software no longer need to be in protective cages to avoid collisions with humans.

Patrick Tighe Architecture, SCI-Arc
In the past several years, Froech has also formed a productive professional partnership with architect Patrick Tighe, who met Froech when the two worked at Morphosis in the late 1990s. For the Out of Memory (2011) installation at SCI-Arc, Tighe translated a piece of music by composer Ken Ueno into three dimensions. Froech realized the design with the help of an industrial robot, which carved away at a massive block of foam.

Courtesy Patrick Tighe Architecture

While this might seem like science fiction, Froech is convincing. “The tools and technology are available. They just haven’t been applied in this way yet because of a lack of expertise,” he says. He cites the recently completed HOK-designed Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC) as the perfect example of the type of structure where robot arms similar to the ones parked in his living room could play a role. “You could mount and run industrial-type robots on the grid structure to place and fasten any type of cladding,” he says. This, he adds, means no more specially trained workers, risky scaffolding, or costly crane equipment.

“Applying robot technology to grid shell construction makes sense because grid shells resemble very closely the assembly concept of cars and airplanes, where robots have been mastered for a long time,” says Froech. “The ability to learn from these industries will help fast track the development of this application in architecture and the building industry.” Froech is also quick to point out that this methodology can be tied into BIM (building information modeling) strategies where assembly paths can be previewed on the computer and optimized to increase efficiency.

Patrick Tighe Architecture, Courtyard at La Brea
For Tighe’s design of the La Brea Housing in Los Angeles, a 32-unit affordable housing complex for once homeless LGBT youth, Froech fabricated the white bands of panelized metal that wrap around the building’s southeast edge. He also laser-cut aluminum facade panels that shield the apartments from light and roving eyes.

Courtesy Patrick Tighe Architecture

That’s just the beginning. Froech believes that the machine-made will eventually become much more dominant in architectural systems of making and assembly. The manual approach will certainly be a part of the equation, but with fully automated shops already producing different types of building components, there is currently logic in place and a market that could be expanded upon. Human participation would increasingly take on the roles of quality control and supervision.

Ultimately, Froech sees this as a way for designers to have more control over their designs. “The dominant model of project delivery is like an illness,” he says. “It’s too complicated and very slow. There are so many steps and the design gets redesigned and reinvented, over and over, first by the architects, then by the builders and subcontractors.” He envisions a process where designers are able to select from a growing pool of automated options fully integrated with the design through 3D data models. “Designers will be able to make confident design decisions, linking make-ability and efficiency to the expression of design, rather than fixing things after design decisions have been made.”

Now that he runs a consultancy, Froech maintains that he will work as an integral part of design teams as the expert programmer-fabricator, ensuring that good decisions are made in the beginning. “It’s always a problem of translating ideas into buildings,” he says. “The master builders and architects of past eras were designing what they knew and what they knew how to build. Now, we can design and build what we don’t know and explore new possibilities. It’s what I really like doing.”

Categories: Architecture, Technology