MESH AG is the first company to have developed a procedure for manufacturing complex reinforced concrete structures without formwork. Sika and PERI – the formwork and scaffolding application specialist – teamed up with the ETH spin-off in 2022. The partnership will expand the availability of robot-assisted technology in the market. Ammar Mirjan, CEO of MESH AG, and Carsten Rieger, Corporate Market Development Manager Target Market Concrete at Sika, explained more detail in the following interview.
In a research project spanning ten years, a team of scientists headed by Ammar Mirjan developed an innovative procedure for combining 3D technology with robotics. Based on a concept or project idea, specialists create a 3D computer model and convert the data into a machine code for production. Robots then rapidly produce precise mesh elements for the desired structure. The different modules are assembled on the construction site and filled with concrete. At this point, Sika admixtures ensure that the concrete can be pumped into the mesh structures without flowing out. Thanks to the MESH technology, complex geometries can be cost-efficiently manufactured.
Mr. Mirjan, you played a major role in the development of MESH technology at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Why did you decide to leave the career path of a researcher and become CEO of MESH AG?
Ammar Mirjan: When I joined ETH, our research group headed by Prof. Matthias Kohler and Prof. Fabio Gramazio was a pioneer in the use of robots in the construction industry. MESH technology is the result of intensive fundamental research at ETH. But in my last few years there, I became increasingly interested in the transfer process: How might I take a basic research project such as MESH and convert it to an industrial application? To bring a technology to life and sustainably shape the culture of the construction industry, you must leave the university world behind and engage with the market.
MESH AG offers technology for robot-assisted construction. Can you sum up in a few words what that means?
Ammar Mirjan: We essentially transpose 3D data models precisely described on computers into robotically produced construction parts. Thanks to the support of robots, building models described on a computer can be directly plugged into the physical production process. We use the robots to assemble, bend, and weld reinforcement structures so that a spatial object is created from the digital model. Together with Sika, we have developed a special procedure that allows reinforcement cages to be used on building sites as formwork.
"Our robots produce modules that can then be assembled on the building site like a puzzle." Ammar Mirjan, CEO of MESH AG
How are the mesh elements finished on the construction site?
Carsten Rieger: The mesh elements are first assembled on the construction site. We then arrive at the site with a conventional concrete that already contains our usual concrete admixtures. We thicken the material on site with more admixtures that are developed for the MESH method. The concrete can now be placed in the mesh structure using normal pumps and without flowing out.
Are there any restrictions regarding the size of building parts when working with MESH technology?
Ammar Mirjan: No. With our robots, we produce modules that can be transported to the building site, where they can then be assembled in structures of any size, just like a puzzle.
Is special equipment or training required to apply MESH technology?
Carsten Rieger: Again, no. We work with standard construction site equipment – no new tools or machines are required. No special training is needed. But as with anything new, a certain amount of support is required at the start. Our technicians will be present on the building site to accompany the manufacturing process until the contractor is able to apply the new technology alone.
Ammar Mirjan: MESH facilitates the cost-efficient manufacture of complex forms for the first time ever – because with robot-assisted production, the complexity essentially comes at no extra cost.
What benefits does MESH technology offer customers?
Ammar Mirjan: The manufacture of very complex forms is still extremely expensive and produces a great deal of waste because the formwork can only be used once. This means that unique forms are usually only considered for special properties, such as museums or prestige buildings. For most other construction applications, the cost is simply too high. MESH technology allows complex forms to be produced efficiently for the first time. When you’re working with robot-assisted production, it’s irrelevant whether something is straight or curved. So, the complexity aspect comes at no extra charge. This opens new design possibilities for architects and building contractors alike.
Carsten Rieger: The crucial thing here is that this applies not just to esthetic but also structural objects, such as load-bearing walls or ceilings. The freedom is not just a design win, but also facilitates material-optimized construction.
How much can contractors save if they produce special forms using MESH technology?
Ammar Mirjan: Special geometries can be produced much more cost-efficiently with MESH, as our cost comparison illustrates. Using MESH technology, we built a structure measuring four by four meters with a double curvature. The costs were about 50% below what they would normally be with conventional construction methods – and with a larger structure, the difference would be even greater. What’s more, by not using formwork, excess waste can be prevented.
What are your goals for MESH AG over the next few years?
Ammar Mirjan: We founded MESH AG in 2022. We’re now busy setting up a prototype production site in the Zurich region. The aim is to implement the first pilot projects in 2023 – small ones to start with, and larger ones to follow.
How do you see the company developing in the longer term?
Ammar Mirjan: In the long-term, I see MESH AG as a pioneer in construction work involving steel reinforcement and robots. Today, we are the only company to build 3D models on a free-form basis with a computer model and using robots. Reinforcement steel is used in both building construction and civil engineering, so there is significant potential for robot-assisted production.
How great is the market potential?
Carsten Rieger: The global market potential for special formwork, i.e. curved or double curvature forms, currently stands at around EUR 150 million in building construction – and that’s just in the newbuild area. There is also further potential in civil engineering and in the renovation area.
Mr. Mirjan, you are currently working to bring in your first orders. What’s the demand like?
Ammar Mirjan: There’s plenty of interest, but also lots of persuasion needed from our side. We need customers who are bold enough to try something new. For this reason, we are keen to start with smaller projects where the hurdles are lower.
Which target groups must be persuaded first?
Carsten Rieger: Architects, general contractors, master builders, construction engineers, developers, and building owners are the key target groups. In 3D printing, it’s clear that architects were pushing this technology once they realized the new design possibilities it opens up.
"Sika wants to help push MESH technology in the market." Carsten Rieger, Corporate Market Development Manager Target Market Concrete at Sika
Why did Sika become involved with MESH?
Carsten Rieger: Together with ETH Zurich, we held the original patents for the technology. Formwork and scaffolding specialist PERI came on board because it was keen to be involved in the industrialization of MESH. So that’s how the project came to involve ETH, PERI, and Sika. For Sika, MESH is a fascinating, innovative project in digitalization/automation. As a leading company, we want to drive forward this invention.
What short-term and medium-term targets is Sika pursuing with MESH?
Carsten Rieger: We want to help get this technology established in the market. But we also want to generate sales with MESH. This technology will create interesting sales opportunities for Sika in connection with admixtures, shotcrete, and surface treatment.
How does the collaboration between Sika and MESH AG work?
Carsten Rieger: Sika is active in the project team. When customers have queries, the Sika network can provide technical support and customized Sika products to help resolve challenges. We're also assisting with strategic development on MESH AG’s Board of Directors.
Ammar Mirjan: From our standpoint, the collaboration between Sika and PERI will also be of value when it comes to scaling. For example, when we want to implement projects in other countries going forward.
So, is the launch of MESH technology outside Switzerland already on the agenda?
Carsten Rieger: MESH AG is a young start-up. Our focus is first on the countries of the German-speaking world – so Germany, Austria, Switzerland. But once we’ve gained more experience, the technology can obviously be exported to other countries.
Ammar Mirjan: At the Bauma construction machinery trade fair, it was clear that there is plenty of interest in this technology from all over the world.
Let’s end this interview with some future-tripping. How will digital technologies such as MESH change the construction world?
Ammar Mirjan: I think it’s a good thing – and necessary – that digitalization and automation are now also making inroads into the construction industry. Both things will dramatically transform the industry. There will be new architectural design opportunities and greater freedom in terms of form, while the construction process will become more efficient, material-optimized, and more sustainable. I’m very optimistic.
Carsten Rieger: In Target Market Concrete, we are currently focusing on three themes: sustainability, digitalization, and optimization. Decarbonization and the efficient use of resources pose major challenges to the construction industry. In digitalization/automation, many solutions are already available – such as 3D printing, and now MESH technology. The task now is to establish these in the construction industry because they will help optimize processes as well as the use of materials. There’s another challenge – the construction industry is heavily regulated and the rules often lag behind the pace of digital progress. That said, the immense pressure felt by the construction industry in connection with net zero could accelerate this transformation. Another important aspect is that digitalization can help resolve specialist labor shortages and increase the appeal of working in construction. Digital technologies such as MESH make the construction industry much more attractive.