Charlotte Abrahams meets Make:Shift speaker Gregory Epps
Day two of the Make:Shift conference sees Professor Daniel Charny hosting a discussion under the tools theme with Gregory Epps, founder of RoboFold. Epps’s tools range from biros and craft knives to industrial robots and a lot of rather complex computer software, because RoboFold specialises in a unique form of metal origami performed by robots.
‘Tools are important,’ he says. ‘We use the same standard industrialised robots that they use in the car industry, and have developed our own in-house robotic sequencing software, but the most important thing is to understand the materials and what they can do. That’s what comes first.’
And that’s where the biros and the craft knives come in, because everything RoboFold makes (things which include Arum, the extraordinary, 11 metre high centre-piece of Zaha Hadid’s pavilion at the 2012 Venice Biennale of Architecture) begins with a piece of card. ‘You can make everything on CAD,’ Epps says, ‘but I believe that objects are more successful when they begin in the real world and since all the rules of folding paper are also true of folding metal, we always begin with a hand-made card prototype. We also manhandle the metal later on in the process because if we can fold it, then we know that the robots can fold it.’
Epps’s fascination with folding began while he was still at school studying art and design. ‘I was making sculptures, and I realised that I could fold paper along curved lines,’ he says. ‘I then discovered that I could do the same with metal.’
It took 10 years and a dual masters in Industrial Design Engineering from the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London to figure out a way to industrialise the process, but in 2008 RoboFold was launched. Today, there are six people on the team, the process has been patented, and they have developed their own software. Current projects include a three-metre high canopy consisting of curved folded leaves and straight folded branches which is destined for a shopping centre.
One-off artworks such as this, along with furniture and interior panel systems form the bulk of RoboFold’s business because artists, designers and architects love the fact that, while the process is highly industrialised, it can be used to create original one-offs. ‘Robots are so much better than moulds,’ Epps says, ‘partly because they’re the only things that can follow really complex paths through space, but also because digital information can be so easily altered. The technology allows variation in design parameters as a standard feature.’
The original idea was to use the technique to create unique, curved, folded metal pieces, but Epps admits that he would love to see it adopted by the automotive industry. (His own folded car was presented in 2004 as part of the Royal College of Art’s hundredth anniversary celebrations.) ‘I really like the idea that folded metal can be used structurally,’ he says, ‘but these industries are slow to embrace new technologies.’
In the meantime, his goal is to establish licensed RoboFold factories all over the world. The first one is due to open in 2015 as part of Pontio, a new Fab Lab complex currently being built at the University of Bangor. It will mean that students and researchers will be able to do their own RoboFolding on site. ‘I really want to develop licensing,’ Epps says. ‘I’d like to get to a place where people can just upload a picture of folded papers, and get something back in sheet metal from their local RoboFold factory a few days later. Because all the information is digital, it doesn’t matter where a design starts in the world, and things can be produced close to where they’re consumed.’
So does Gregory Epps think that he is a craftsman, an engineer or a programmer? ‘I try not to think of myself as any of those – or even architect, entrepreneur or artist,’ he says. ‘Specialisms cause assumptions, which prevent new ideas. Ultimately you have to be all and none at the same time.’
Gregory Epps will speak in the Panel Discussion 3 in the Long Space, 10-11.45am, Fri 21 November