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ALEXANDER WALZER | DIGITAL FABRICATION & ROBOTICS

Alex (Alexander) Nikolas Walzer
Research Fellow, Design Robotics

Favourite quote “The process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”  Austrian Economist Joseph Schumpeter.
Favourite Podcast ConTechCrew focuses on digital construction technologies
Why robots? Robots are versatile machines enabling the execution of a variety of tasks, which makes them ideal for prototyping and beyond. They are precise, strong, and can be fast or very patient and outfitted with almost any tool to suit most processes.
What is your background? How did you end up in Design Robotics?
I am trained as an architect in Europe and Australia and stumbled into Digital Fabrication several years ago. I was mostly inspired by the idea of being able to learn about and make (almost!) anything. For that reason, I spent some time in Milan and Barcelona and was an exchange student at RMIT, where I was part of the team designing the new mace which was 3D-printed from Titanium. 
[youtube-video id=”eRjgB73QqKg”]RMIT’s 3D printed mace[/youtube-video]
Subsequently, I took on a few roles bridging computational design and digital fabrication at ETH Zurich and the NCCR Digital Fabrication. At ETH, I supervised Nizar Taha and Jetana Ruangjun’ Master thesis Robotic Aerocrete which was a really interesting and fulfilling experience. It involved the use of mobile robotic set-up for creating geometrically complex thin-shell textile-reinforced concrete structures. 
[video-embed id=”292811603″]Robotic AeroCrete[/video-embed]
At NCCR Digital Fabrication, we developed a digitized construction system called Mesh Mould. 
[youtube-video id=”ZeLEeY8yK2Y”]In situ Fabricator & Mesh Mould: Complete construction[/youtube-video]
The daily work included design thinking, agile project management and delivering experimental results on time, I worked within larger industry collaborations and always in interdisciplinary teams. Besides that, I continued to engage in Makerspaces / FabLabs and have consulted Start-Ups and companies of various scales on identifying and exploiting potentials of Digitalization / Industry 4.0 within the AEC, Design and manufacturing sector in Europe and the US. As of 2020, I am very happy to be back at RMIT in Melbourne and work with partners old and new alike on the robotic application and design implication of novel 3D metal-printing tech! 
Tell us a bit about your role in the Design Robotics project
Design Robotics is a collaboration of Urban Art Projects (UAP), QUT, RMIT and the IMCRC. UAP is manufacturing bespoke public art and architectural pieces worldwide, QUT is teaching industrial robots to perceive their workpiece and environment and we at RMIT provide the bespoke computational design–to–robotic fabrication workflow including industrial welding. Together, this allows us to benchmark the technology against existing workflows or procedures. 
Digital fabrication involves aspects of computational design and coding and applying it into processes of production. And now, we are exploring what robots can do in this process. I’m in between these two worlds of physical materiality with virtual processes and technologies. My workflow involves flexibly fusing novel design technologies to create a product. In my role, this framework spans the entire project pipeline, from idea or first sketch to final, delivered prototype. A crucial part is the integration of fabrication data into the 3D design environment. 
Tell us a little more about the problem you are solving in Design Robotics
3D-printing at scale comes with certain limitations but the use of Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (or WAAM) yields big potential to save time and material in design and construction. The additive build-up of material generally has a better Buy-To-Fly ratio than standard processes such as casting or CNC milling. WAAM can be integrated onto a standard industrial robot which makes it a very competitive alternative to the before-mentioned strategies. Eventually, we will be enabled to investigate structural optimization, near-net shape fabrication and hybrid manufacturing.
What has been your biggest joy with the project so far?
I really enjoy daily work with talented people of so many trades and exchange knowledge pro-actively. I also see that industrial and academic interests can eventually be very supplementary and help to accelerate the application of new technologies.
What is your next big goal with the project?
The Design Robotics team at RMIT at the moment is focussed on 3D printing of large scale objects. As our process becomes more robust and ready for higher throughputs, I am happy to disseminate the work in the months to come: Through mutual prototyping with engineers and co-creation with artists, we can examine this technology from various perspectives and discuss it within the IMCRC and beyond. In line with the Open Innovation Network we can reach out to new partners in Industry and Academia and make a strong, realistic case for WAAM in the Australian AEC and manufacturing sector. 
And finally to end with, how have you and your team been coping with COVID-19?
The outbreak of COVID-19 just shortly after the Australian bushfires has had a big impact on both society and our work. Luckily enough, we have been prepared for remote work and can run most robotics-related experiments in simulation and study them in VR/AR/MR mode. Soon enough, we might be able to run the physical system fully automated from a remote location. Personally, I believe, the current crisis holds a lot of opportunities for those ready to digitize!
To connect with Alex and learn more about his work
Design Robotics | RMIT | LinkedIn | | Google Scholar

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BTW | WHAT IS WAAM?

For the past few decades, research has been assessing the implications of Additive Manufacturing (AM, or 3D-printing) across many industries. AM is a technology that promises to reduce part cost by reducing material wastage and time to market. Furthermore, AM can also enable an increase in design freedom, which potentially results in weight-saving as well as facilitating the manufacture of complex assemblies formerly made of many subcomponents.
Especially, the potential of printing metals is of high interest to researchers and scientists around the globe. More recently, we have seen the successful application of a technology coined Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing – or WAAM in short. It allows for high volume output, great scalability, and very good mechanical performance. For prototypes and small-batch production runs, in particular, WAAM is a more cost-effective solution than other additive or subtractive manufacturing processes for metal.

RAMLab producing a Propeller using WAAM
The WAAM process starts with a 3D CAD file, which is processed by software running algorithms in which the 3D model is sliced in many layers. Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM) uses arc welding technology to build up a component in layers, this means a metal wire is melted at the right place using a MIG welding torch to form the desired blank. WAAM hardware currently uses standard, off the shelf and low-cost welding equipment: welding power source, torches, and wire feeding systems. Motion can be provided either by robotic systems or computer numerical controlled gantries, for which the path is automatically generated at the click of a button.

A variety of materials, such as common mild steel, stainless steel, aluminium, titanium, and nickel-based metals are perfectly suitable for this AM process. As of today, countless components have already been produced using WAAM technology in a variety of sectors: impellers for machines, airplane parts for the aviation industry, car-body prototypes for automotive, and even an entire bridge for the Arts and AEC sector. Apart from building components purely additively, post-production steps such as polishing and/or machining are possible to fabricate hybrid components that feature both rapid manufacturing and very high precision. It is even possible to repair components using WAAM technology.
WAAM print-only (left) and additionally CNC machined (right)

The Future of Manufacturing

With support from the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC), Design Robotics is collaborating to present a range of new fabrication and vision systems solutions. The goal is simple – to design for human intelligence and optimize the relationship between people and machines.
Pushing the limits of industrial robotics is a move to empower people. Navigating the increasing complexity of manufacturing inevitably supports human experience and enhances skills acquisition. At its heart, this approach celebrates the best of what robots and machines can achieve – problem-solving, and the best of what humans can do – social intelligence and contextual understanding. The remaining question is, what would you manufacture today, tomorrow, and in the future using WAAM?

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