Kreysler notes that these laser-guided measuring tools are typically used in manufacturing wind turbines or automobiles to verify consistency in the pieces produced. “To use them to measure hundreds of panels, all with different and constantly changing shapes is unique,” he says.

Next, the robot uses a grinding head to smooth the panel’s post-applied finish. That finish is another first. Kreysler explains he often blends fillers with coatings to achieve unique properties, but the result is typically sandblasted. The sandblasting process creates a roughness that, in this case, didn’t appeal to the owner. So rather than sandblasting, the finish is sanded by robots. The result, Kreysler says, looks under a microscope much like a terrazzo floor: a durable blend of resin and crushed rock that beautifully reflects the light.

“It’s another one of our never-been-done-before things that makes it fun and challenging and terrifying all at the same time,” Kreysler says.

This degree of automation is unprecedented for Kreysler and for many manufacturers. Typically, automation is used to perform a single task repeatedly, ensuring consistent quality in a production process. Not so in this case.

“These robots never do the same thing twice in 1,500 panels,” Kreysler says. “That has created a demand on the robot programming that essentially means custom programming the robot to go over a shape and then never repeat that shape. I don’t know of any applications in this industry where that’s been required.”

The motivation behind this automation is cost savings. Kreysler says that the traditional way of generating these shapes would have been too costly. To meet the project’s unique demands, he had to invest in new technologies, a new facility in which to house this equipment and a significantly larger workforce.

Contrary to popular belief, Kreysler says he’s found over the years that the more he invests in automation, the more people he must hire to support it and the new needs that arise from being able to achieve more complex products. And despite the sophisticated level of automation at play on the Lucas Museum’s panels, at least half of the work has been done by a craftsman’s hand.

Within 10 months, Kreysler’s team grew from 30 people with years of practice working together and developing technical skillsets to a team of 90 entry-level workers. “What we’re doing is not something you can just go out and find people who have experience doing,” Kreysler points out. “Everybody we bring on must be trained.”

Before moving full swing into fabrication, the team ran through several mockups. First was a proof of concept mockup, where Kreysler’s team transformed a digital model into an array of nine panels roughly half the size of the final panels. “After two years of development we convinced ourselves that we could actually build these shapes this size in a very craftable and consistent manner,” Siegel says.

Next came an aesthetic mockup that achieved the desired finish, followed by a constructability mockup. After approximately a year of development on the trusses, panels were placed on the trusses to ensure the multiple systems involved could be safely joined. The whole rain screen system went through three rounds of NFPA 285 testing to prove fire resistance.

“We are now beginning to make lots of panels every week because we intend to begin installing 1,500 of them on the building in May 2020,” Siegel says. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which includes 300,000 square feet of programmable space, is currently under construction with substantial construction set to finish in late 2021.

While the team is now focused on installation, it’s easy to look beyond to the doors this project opens for more intensive use of GFRP in architectural applications. “We will definitely use it again,” Siegel predicts. “I’m impressed with the ability to manipulate the fundamentals of the materials used to make the panel … the flexibility that the system affords us.”