January 1, 2012

Doing What Comes Naturally: Students Design a Dome Inspired by the Sand Dollar

Human designs have been imitating nature for centuries. However, the term bio-mimicry wasn’t introduced until the 1980’s. That’s just shortly before the birth of most of the budding digital innovators and structural engineers at the Institutfür Computer basiertes Entwerfen and the Institut für Tragkonstruktionenund Konstruktives Entwerfen, programs at Germany’s Universität Stuttgart. Students from both pooled their expertise to design and construct a dome based on a study of the sand dollar. Its exo skeleton, director Jan Knippers explains, “incorporates polygonal plates linked by calcite protrusions, or finger joints.”

doing what comes naturally

To connect 850 geometrically unique plywood facets as a dome, 40 feet in diameter, required more than 100,000 finger joints. “There are many digitally controlled machines for woodworking, but none can do finger joints. That’s something only a robot can do,” Knippers notes. Without a robotic manufacturing facility on-site, the extreme thinness of the plywood, only ¼ inch, wouldn’t have been possible. And the thinness was of course necessary for lightness. “The pavilion had to be weighed down to prevent it from blowing away,” professor Achim Menges says. Thus secured, it served as a temporary lunch destination and music venue.

Photography by Roland Halbe.

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