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Learning and Innovation Go Together at University of Michigan Precast Program Masters Program

When choosing programs to support with its curriculum development grants, the trustees of the PCI Foundation take seriously the old adage that learning and innovation go hand in hand. The precast industry has tackled innovation of its products, production facilities and design approach in part by a targeted and strong outreach program to schools with reputations for innovation and originality in design. One example of this is the masters of science in digital technologies program at the University of Michigan School of Architecture.

During the final portion of the program, students use precast concrete as to create their final project.

At the University of Michigan program the local partner, Kerkstra Precast, took advantage of the school’s ability to leverage its amazing FABLab. This digital laboratory, housed in the Taubmann College uses robotic automation to perform both subtractive and additive manufacturing processes. It houses six industrial robots, organized into three cooperative work cells. Students can use the equipment to create a wide range of material scales. These work cells can be reconfigured rapidly to use a diverse range of processes, from sensor guided welding to automated bending, assembly, abrasive waterjet cutting, and composite fiber placement.

In addition, the FABLab houses a wide range of large-scale CNC machines, including

· two 3-axis routers

· one 5-axis router

· one 3-axis vertical machining center for metals

· one 3-axis waterjet,

· one 4-axis digital knife cutter, plus

· lasers and 3D printers.

A CNC industrial knitting machine is a recent addition to the FABLab’s suite of digitally driven tools, enabling complex textile forms to be produced for a wide range of applications. These tools are supported by traditional metalworking tools and assembly areas as well as collaborative teaching workspaces.

This studio is intended to engage students with the precast industry and is the capstone studio in the post-professional, research-based degree. It is unlike some of University of Michigan’s other programs that are more focused on the architectural design rather than the manufacturing process.

“This studio is poised to consider the design and production of precast architecture as a form of advanced building research,” says associate professor Glenn Wilcox, who has lead the program for three years. “The students use the resources available in the digital lab that allows them to leverage the power of computationally-based design and numerically-controlled machines toward new methodologies, materials, and systems of production.”

For the precasters involved with this project, Kerkstra Precast and International Precast Solutions, the students work was challenging and engaging - unlike what they typically see produced, but new ideas that can unleash the possibility for new uses of precast concrete. Students toured Kerkstra’s plant to learn more about scale and design of current precast projects – which enabled them to look at the future of the product.

“We see the partnership with University of Michigan as a chance to learn from the students and innovate our own processes as well as teach the students about precast concrete materials and methods,” says Greg Kerkstra, president of Kerkstra Precast. “While much of what the students developed won’t be used in our shop today or even next year, they begin to open up new possibilities for innovation as we look at the future. And I love seeing what they come up every year – the students build on the progress made the year before so each year the work gets better and better.”

The students work in separate groups to create their projects. Students work was dramatically different, not only in terms of the equipment used to create it, but also in the final design look and possible uses for the future. Folding concrete that could be shipped flat, using shrink wrap techniques to create the mold, and robotically cut 3-D molds creating variable cast elements. Each project had a unique take on precast concrete design.

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