Mairi Beautyman | June 01, 2013
Its place at the dinner table firmly established, lobster may have found another calling. As a teacher. Undergraduate and graduate students in the digital and structural engineering programs at Germany’s Universität Stuttgart—the Institut für Computerbasiertes Entwerfen and Institut für Tragkonstruktionen und Konstruktives Entwerfen—considered the lobster shell over the course of a project led by two professors. One is the namesake founder of Achim Menges Architect; the other is Jan Knippers of the engineering firm Knippers Helbig. Monthly meetings were also scheduled with biologists from Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen.
“We examined the lobster’s exoskeleton, composed of fiber embedded in a protein matrix,” Achim Menges says. That research informed the design and construction of a temporary installation in carbon and glass fibers. Fabrication took place in the same university courtyard planned for display, since the point of the exercise was to produce a single form. “There would have been no way to get it out through doorways and down halls,” Menges points out.
To define the shell’s shape, which actually resembled a five-legged starfish more than a lobster, the 10 students built an armature in steel and plywood and set it on a robotically controlled turntable. The turntable brought the entirety of the armature within reach of a robotic arm programmed with seven winding sequences for the fibers, previously soaked in an epoxy-resin bath. When the robotic arm had finished positioning them, and they hardened, thanks to the epoxy, the students disassembled the armature. “The load-bearer is the stiffer of the two materials, the carbon fiber,” Knippers explains. That’s what allowed a shell just 1/5 inch thick to stand 12 feet high with a 25-foot diameter.
The process took six months, starting with the day it took to put up a PVC tent over the courtyard. Unlike lobsters, robots aren’t waterproof.