Published Nov 4, 2022 | Nina Hendy
The winners of all eight categories in the Australian Financial Review (AFR) Higher Education Awards 2022 , which recognise and celebrate the outstanding efforts of Australian universities during the past year, have now been announced.
The categories include community engagement; emerging leadership; employability; industry engagement; opportunity and inclusion; research commercialisation; and teaching and learning excellence.
QUT’s Design Robotics Team are the winners of the Industry Engagement category of the AFR Higher Education Awards.
Queensland University of Technology – Design Robotics transforming Australian Manufacturing
A team of design robotics specialists from the Queensland University of Technology has been responsible for transforming a bespoke Brisbane-based art fabricator into an AI-enabled advanced manufacturer.
The Urban Arts Project (UAP) is an award-winning company recognised as a global leader in public art and architectural design solutions. It draws together scientists, technical specialists, designers and engineers, who work side by side to bring uncommon creativity to the public realm and expert resources to creativity.
It works across all parts of the creative process, from commissioning and curatorial services, concept generation and design development, right through to engineering, fabrication and installation.
But the 30-year-old traditional metal foundry knew it needed to evolve its processes in a bid to remain globally competitive and continue to deliver public art and large-scale projects.
UAP set out to explore how to use robots to complete custom manufacturing in a bid to reduce the labour-intensive and physically demanding processes required to create commissions such as sculptures and metal facades.
The journey began in 2017, followed by a $50,000 Innovations Connection grant that enabled UAP to work with Queensland University of Technology’s Australian Centre for Robotic Vision and School of Design researchers embedded in UAP to look for new solutions.
QUT program leaders Jared Donovan and Associate Professor Glenda Caldwell and the rest of the university team were embedded in UAP three days a week, observing existing processes from the workshop floor in a bid to look for efficiencies.
“The plan was always to push the envelope of what’s possible in manufacturing that relies on traditional methods to see what’s possible with the help of robotics,” Donovan says.
“We set out to develop processes that would ultimately increase the range of highvalue bespoke products that it would be possible to manufacture here in a costeffective way here in Australia.
“We realised early on that manufacturers need to compete on value differentiation, not on cost, which is why there’s such an emphasis on advanced manufacturing,” Donovan says.
A lightbulb moment came when collaborating with RMIT University colleagues on the project whereby the robotic manufacturing process was being controlled via the Zoom session.
“That experience led us to contemplate how we could have more distributed ways to work to be able to bring in expertise from thousands of kilometres away, or even half a world away,” Donovan says.
“We realised that there could be huge potential to apply robotic fabrication technologies in the construction process. But the real problem was that we didn’t know what the shape of the object was, so we knew we needed an adaptable robot and digital finishing process to be able to clean up the metal pieces,” he says.
It’s an Australian-first project that demonstrates how a successful partnership between research and industry partners can help transform industry.
Donovan elevated QUT’s robotics and design-led manufacturing research, bringing its key strengths in robotics and design together, facilitating further cross-disciplinary research and development.
“It was really important to us that these robots make the job easier, but don’t replace jobs. It was about bringing efficiency to the process, but still allowing these people to exercise their expertise but also be able to work at a larger scale using materials that can’t be manipulated by hand,” Donovan says.
UAP has been able to increase Australian sales by 148 per cent, reduce offshore manufacturing by 36 per cent and employ a further 43 employees. It will adopt other advanced technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality into the processes and combine technology in a range of ways through the manufacturing process, positioning UAP as a global leader.
The collaboration has also led to the creation of The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Hub in 2020, which is an agile technology centre in robotics, an $18 million initiative funded by Queensland University of Technology.
Winner’s strategy: Design Robotics
By Associate Professor Jared Donovan, QUT.
The catalyst for the Design Robotics project was a visit by UAP to QUT to see whether robotic technologies could be applied to their highly bespoke manufacturing operations.
As world-leading supplier of products and manufacturing services into the global market for iconic architecture, design, and art projects, UAP provides R&D, design, production, and installation services internationally for projects including the Hudson Yards (New York), Four Seasons (Guangzhou), and Boy Walking by Ronnie Van Hout (Auckland).
UAP’s clients increasingly demand mass-customised products, such as complex building façade elements, interior panelling systems, and large-scale public artworks, which cannot be produced with traditional robotic manufacturing techniques.
UAP required advances in robotic vision and robotic fabrication to make robotic mass-customisation manufacture possible, where no two pieces are the same. Involving researchers in design, architecture, robotics and engineering from QUT and RMIT, the Design Robotics project was funded by the Innovative Manufacturing CRC to develop robotic systems that could see and respond to the unique shapes of the objects they were working on.
Alongside researchers, the project also employed QUT research engineers to progress the necessary technical implementation, allowing research staff and students to focus on the larger research problems that needed to be solved.
A design-led collaborative research approach was crucial to the success of the project. The research team was consistently embedded within UAP’s facilities in Brisbane carrying out research and taking part in weekly stand-up meetings to track project progress.
We worked with UAP staff to understand their requirements, kept our eyes open for opportunities to apply learnings from the research into day-to-day operations. A good example was a collaboration with UAP expert metal finisher Matteo Fantini to develop a collaborative robotic solution to finish large aluminium panels for a public artwork. From start to finish, this mini project took two weeks to complete and dramatically reduced the time and effort involved.
It was easy to be inspired when collaborating with a partner like UAP. Each week when the research team arrived at the Brisbane factory, we would wonder what new things we would see. One week, it would be stacked with massive custom façade panels, the next with pieces of a gigantic metal sculpture. We were often surprised by the original solutions that UAP staff came up with, which prompted new ideas for how to approach the research.
For example, during the time of our collaboration, UAP began exploring the use of augmented and virtual reality technologies for fluid processes of design and manufacture.
In his PhD project, QUT Design Robotics researcher Dr Alan Burden investigated this idea further to develop an augmented reality interface that allows non-expert artisan workers to control robotic cutting of custom shapes from sheet materials. We also explored novel fabrication techniques such as incremental sheet forming, robotic sand mould milling, robotic 3D printing, and ‘lost foam’ metal casting.
Research has an important role in helping Australian firms “collaborate to play bigger” in an increasingly competitive global environment. For UAP to realise the full potential of our research, it was vital that the artists, designers, and architects they work with understood the possibilities of advanced manufacturing technologies.
It was also important to understand how the research problems we solved for UAP could apply to other areas of manufacturing, such as medical device manufacture where medical implants must often conform to the unique shapes of individual patients’ bodies.
Through the establishment of the Design Robotics Open Innovation Network, we worked with artists, architects, and designers to apply learnings from the design robotics project into the ongoing commercial projects of UAP and document the outcomes so others could learn from them.
Project outcomes have been presented in industry seminars and exhibited nationally and internationally ensuring access for a wide range of potential user groups to the outcomes of the research.
The collaborative partnerships forged in the Design Robotics project have carried on into the establishment of the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Hub, co-founded by QUT, UAP, and the Queensland Government, and in the Australian Cobotics Centre, funded by the ARC’s Industrial Transformation Training Program.
Within these organisations, Design Robotics researchers continue their work designing robotic technologies for the needs of Australian manufacturers.