Technology using robots to mould bespoke curved concrete panels is opening new possibilities for architecture while reducing the carbon footprint of the construction industry.
Concrete. It’s a ubiquitous material intrinsic to our constructed world, used widely in all manner of infrastructure from foundations and tunnels underground, to roads and bridges underfoot and the buildings that surround us. But despite its appeal to builders, engineers and architects for both its form and function, its use is increasingly problematic.
The concrete industry is responsible for close to eight per cent of global Co2 emissions, making it the world’s worst industrial carbon polluter.
But now, a Melbourne advanced manufacturing start-up is demonstrating how to change that picture.
Curvecrete has developed a technology that dramatically reduces the carbon footprint of concrete manufacture, while expanding the ways it can be used in construction and design.
Its robotic advanced manufacturing system builds bespoke curved concrete panels using by-products from coal and steel production in a process that itself creates zero waste.
The environmental upside is significant and there are also benefits for the construction industry. The technology producing made-to-order curved panels opens new frontiers for “liquid” architecture, while also providing significant cost savings.
Underpinned by a computer numerically controlled (CNC) system developed through a 2017 University of Melbourne research project, the technology has recently made significant progress towards market.
The company has received an Accelerating Commercialisation grant under the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme, and support from the program’s delivery partner i4 Connect. This has allowed Curvecrete to hire three team members, build five robotic moulds and set up a manufacturing plant that is demonstrating the technology in action.
“The grant has enabled us to really get going as a serious business by establishing our factory facility and building robotic systems in order to deliver on our first projects,” says Curvecrete co-founder and CEO Daniel Prohasky.
Curvecrete has recently unveiled its pilot project – an enclosed concrete spiral staircase leading to the rooftop of a 14-storey Melbourne apartment building. Consisting of 35 individually curved concrete panels, the staircase gives residents access to the rooftop and provides a showstopping selling point for the complex, he says.
A second demonstration project also underway is an internal meeting-room pod with curved “rosebud-like” textured concrete exterior walls and an acoustically quiet interior. This could potentially be installed in any communal area.
“It’s a beautiful shape and demonstration of our technology suited for co-working spaces or offices. It provides a quiet place where people can have some focused work time or meetings,” Prohasky says.
Ultimately, the curved concrete panels could be used in a range of applications, he says, from urban art and architectural facades to infrastructure such as housing, bridges and sound barriers.
Road to market
Prohasky, who is an architectural engineer and roboticist with a PhD focusing on advanced manufacturing from RMIT, developed the Curvecrete technology with David Leggett and Paul Loh at the University of Melbourne. They are driven by a passion to improve people’s quality of living through better buildings while solving sustainability challenges in the process.
Through a ‘mixer’ event at the university Prohasky met chartered accountant Warren Rudd, who was completing a Master of Entrepreneurship at the Wade Institute and immediately identified the technology’s commercial potential.
“I just thought that buildings didn’t need to be the boring boxes they often are,” Rudd says.
“And I could see the benefit of having architecturally beautifully designed places without creating any waste. It just seemed like no-brainer to me.”
Through their partnership, and a variety of programs supporting innovation, with the University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology, they worked on advancing the technology while establishing a business case.
But the Accelerating Commercialisation service – and process – has been a real game-changer, they say.
Curvecrete worked with i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitator Peter Christo to help guide the grant application process. Rudd says Christo’s forensic approach scrutinised their operations, tested their value proposition and helped nail down their business plan.
This meant that when they were awarded the $325,158 Accelerating Commercialisation grant (matched with investment from Skalata Ventures and Angel Investors), they were able to hit the ground running.
“It set us up for the next 18 months,” Rudd says. “We had a plan. We knew what our milestones were. It all made sense from a commercialisation perspective.”
Christo, a fintech entrepreneur and self-described “curious George”, in his role of Commercialisation Facilitator guides businesses through the Accelerating Commercialisation service.
He continues to support Curvecrete in its two-year Accelerating Commercialisation project as it meets its milestones, but says from day one, the company has ticked all the boxes.
The team was well prepared and had a clear understanding of their business and where they wanted to go. And they had a genuinely novel product that had potential for significant impact.
“You’ve got a robot that basically shapes curved cement panels for use in construction,” he says. “So you can imagine once they have a few customers and word is out in the industry people should be beating a path to their door”.
Doors are already being opened through demonstration projects Curvecrete is completing.
The company is fielding enquiries from co-working spaces about their office pods. And after taking part in the Victorian Government Big Build EcologiQ Greener Infrastructure trade show, there is interest in using their technology for sound barriers and retaining structures.
“Traditionally, this infrastructure uses heavy panels, but we want to look at lightweight systems and lower carbon systems – zero waste methods of construction,” Prohasky says.
Prohasky explains that by using waste by-products fly ash and blast furnace slag in the production of its geopolymer concrete, Curvecrete reduces Co2 emissions by 80 per cent compared to traditional cement mix.
“Wherever coal power is, we can clean up the waste of that process and build something that’s beautiful; using a waste by-product in the material itself has zero waste in the production,” he says.
Compared to traditional moulds that are discarded after use, Curvecrete’s casting method uses a mould that is reusable, and simply adjusted for the specifications of each job.
This not only reduces waste, but also construction costs. “There’s clear cost efficiencies in the process because we’re not building a mould and destroying it each time,” says Prohasky.
Curvecrete proposes to further increase outcomes for the environment and efficiencies for the construction industry in its next steps, which include taking the robotic moulds out of the factory and using them onsite. This would reduce construction time, ensure adaptations could be made efficiently and take trucks transporting giant slabs of concrete off the road.
Less secondary steel is required in construction when using Curvecrete panelling, Prohasky says, leading to further cost savings. And with their curvy panels comparable to the cost of a flat product, a whole realm of architectural possibility opens up, he says.
“The curvature that an architect will design typically gets value managed out of the process because it’s either too complex or risky to build or the method that they use to build it is cost prohibitive,” he says. “But we can make it affordable enough for it to be achievable.”
Curvecrete is now looking to expand its capability into structural systems such as sustainable modular housing, which is a much larger market than the architectural cladding, and urban artwork spaces.
“By the end of the Accelerating Commercialisation grant process we want to be able to show that this is all possible. Creating these unique designs using robotics is not a conceptual idea. It’s totally practical. And we want to be leaders in the field delivering complex projects”.