Clay Culture: Haptek Lab

Haptek Lab is a group of architects, technologists, designers, academics, and practitioners focused on introducing the unique qualities of touch in the production of industrially made architectural ceramics.

Improvements in manufacturing of architectural ceramics coupled with renewed interest in the sustainable properties of the material have resulted in increased use of industrially formed ceramic tiles and rain screens in architectural applications. The effort by the ceramics industry to ramp up the precision and scale of manufacturing output expanded the marketability and usability of ceramic products for a wide range of architectural applications and settings. This is an exciting time, yet there is no denying that these industrial products have different experiential qualities than handmade tiles. To understand the nature of the differences, an interdisciplinary group of architects, technologists, interior designers, academics, and practitioners based in Toronto, New York, and California formed a team, together known as Haptek Lab, to study the potential to embed the quality of touch in industrial manufacturing. The collaboration was prompted by an invitation to participate in Boston Valley Terra Cotta’s prestigious Architectural Ceramic Assemblies Workshop (ACAW) held in August of 2020. With this event in mind, the team worked together for a year to articulate and refine the design research methods and outcomes. Working collaboratively despite the distances between team members proved to be fundamental to the complex question we established early in our process: How can the haptic qualities of making by hand translate to digital craft?

1 Diagram of integrated robots in manufacturing of architectural ceramics. Photo: Reese Young.

Haptic Effects in Digital Making

In tackling this problem of conveying haptic, emotive qualities into digital making, we looked to both ceramic arts and historic architectural ceramic projects, most of which were crafted by hand. We became interested in the particular material behaviors and characteristics of hand-worked clay, including the ways that clay deforms, its moisture content, how it builds up, and how it sticks to or peels off of tools. This unpredictable, plastic quality of imprecise hand processes became the goal for our robotic processes. We sought to empower the robot with the tools and techniques that would produce similarly unpredictable results. But how to translate the embodied knowledge of the craftsperson for a robot with power so strong that moving through clay is akin to moving through air?

In order to program haptic effects in digital making, we began by analyzing typical ceramic sculpting techniques like casting, stamping, molding, and bas relief to create detailed ornamental tactility. Starting from the standard set of clay tools, we worked intuitively by hand to produce tactile surfaces on wet clay through multi-layered textures to better understand the embodied and sensual qualities. This allowed us to observe the behavior of the clay body and the impressions made by human touch.

2 Custom 3D-printed end-of-arm tool (EOAT) designed by Haptek Lab for the KUKA KR10 industrial robotic arm. The custom EOAT is five sided, which allows for a seamless transition between tools, facilitating the possibility to have several marks and diverse qualities on the same panel while optimizing efficiency and time. Photo: Linda Zhang.

Achieving the Desired Material Effects

Our next step was to re-create these haptic, tactile experiences using the robotic arm. At first, we attached various ceramic hand tools to the end of the robotic arm to mimic hand marks. It became immediately clear that a direct translation between the hand and the robot would need skill development in terms of operations, material behavior, and produced effects. Through iterative prototyping, we found that layering robotic tooling within a feedback loop of live human response to and evaluation of the marks that were made could create impressions in the clay with a richer surface and chance material behavior. A human-like touch began to emerge using the robotic tools in repetition and with slight variations to create overlapped clay marks. However, our aim was not to simply use the robot to replace hand work with automated digital processes, rather we wanted new opportunities for a different kind of materiality to emerge through the digital tools.

A Collaborative Space

This was also the moment we collectively went into lockdown across our various research labs and studios across Canada and the US in face of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were no longer able to travel to work together with the robot and the clay, but pivoted to the collective workspace of Zoom calls, Miro boards, and Grasshopper KUKA|prc simulations of robotic arm movements. All communication and collaboration became mediated through a digital layer. Robotic tooling was created in one location and shared digitally with the lab.

3 Georgia Barrington of Haptek Lab preparing a Boston Valley Terra Cotta extrusion for tooling on a KUKA KR10 industrial robotic arm at the Creative Technology Lab at Ryerson University’s Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo: Jonathon Anderson.

4 Archive photo from the Erie Canal Museum translated to 16 panels from Boston Valley Terra Cotta covered in blue slip. Photo: Linda Zhang.

Within the 3D visualization and modeling software Rhinoceros (Rhino) along with its visual scripting companion Grasshopper, there is no existing simulation for the behavior of clay. In this digital world, clay is a quasi-nonmaterial. Our only glimpse into how clay might respond was to run the real robot against real clay. We learned from the pressure required to affect the surface topography.

In this new digital collaborative space, we designed and fabricated a series of human-hand-sized tools as an extension of the robot arm (designed at home, and 3D printed in the lab)—5-sided tools that made use of the 6-axes of movement. We programmed the robot to make marks using these tools through randomized computationally scripted points. Just as an artist might repeatedly make the same action to see what might shake out, we also treated the digital process as a way of developing a feedback loop between the qualities produced, ranging from a series of densely packed gridded points to random seed-generated points, varying the density, spacing, depths, and radii of the marks. With our robot collaborator, we began building skills over time with training in the form of altered programming and tools to exploit the sensual qualities of the resulting material effects. Dense and overlapping marks at the scale of fingerprints on clay coated in colored slip created literal and perceived surface depth.

Translating the tactile to the manufacturing setting without using hand work is a challenging and enduring problem. Haptek Lab’s design studies show that the robot has potential to be a critical partner in the manufacturing setting, offering the ability to create bespoke designs through an automated process calibrated against digital craft and haptic feedback. Integrating the robot with industrial manufacturing processes can make otherwise highly laborious surface detailing and finishing more widely accessible. In questioning the limitations of the robot and hand work in the manufacturing setting, future design research may build upon commingling machine and hand tactility and effects.

5 Detail of robotically tooled clay surface from Haptek Lab’s Beyond the Surface: The Materiality of Digital Ceramics. Photo: Linda Zhang.

6 Detailed view of haptic surfaces made on Boston Valley Terra Cotta extrusions through Haptek Lab’s robot-hand feedback loop. Photo: Linda Zhang.

Haptek Lab is a design research group composed of Errol Willett, Linda Zhang, Clare Olsen, Jonathon Anderson, Naomi Frangos, Georgia Barrington, Reese Young, and Amy Yan. For more information about the group and team affiliations, please visit the group’s website

We would like to acknowledge funding support from Ryerson University and Syracuse University as well as in-kind contributions from the Creative Technology Lab at FCAD, Boston Valley Terra Cotta, the Ryerson RSID 3D Material Studio and Ceramic Lab, Ryerson Collaboratory, Cal Poly CAED Photo Presentation Facility, and the Syracuse University Ceramics Department.

the authors Clare Olsen, Errol Willett, Linda Zhang met at Syracuse University. Olsen is now a professor at the Cal Poly College of Architecture and Environmental Design in San Luis Obispo, California, and Zhang is a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Interior Design in Toronto. Willett remains at Syracuse University.


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