K-12 Building Blueprints

Designing Robotics Labs

A rapid increase in automation is changing the skills students need to succeed during the fourth industrial revolution. Today, robotics education is among the most relevant workforce development training a school can provide. However, these specialized labs require specific design strategies to optimize real-world learning.

robot lab 

Photo by William Manning Photography / courtesy of Fanning Howey

Brain Work. Well-designed workstations help students learn the ins and outs of electronics and programming.

Determining Your Space Needs

When it comes to robotics labs, the size of your equipment determines your space needs. A typical lab includes space for small demonstration robots and an adjacent classroom. There is no difference between learning to program a demonstration robot or a full-size robotics arm; so many schools choose the smaller robots to save space and money.

If you do have access to full-size robotics equipment, you will need more space. At the new Tri Star Career Compact in Celina, Ohio, the school received a generous donation of multiple full-size robotics arms. The larger equipment required more space. As a result, the new school has a 3,037-square-foot high bay lab with ample room for 10 full-size robotics stations, two demonstration stations, equipment storage and security fencing.

The need for security fencing is one of the biggest differences between demonstration robotics equipment and real-world robotics equipment. Industrial robots are incredibly powerful machines, and security fencing is critical to ensure student and teacher safety.

If you have the space and the resources, investing in full-size robotics equipment provides an additional layer of education. Not only do students learn about programming, but they gain experience with real-world safety protocols. However, if you are planning to have one or more full-size robots, be prepared to invest in additional space and equipment.

Maximize Flexibility

Mobility isn’t the first word that comes to mind when thinking of robots, but flexible design strategies are an important part of any robotics lab. At Tri Star, flexibility was the number one design criteria. Inspired by a visit to the Honda North American Training Center in Marysville, Ohio, the lab space includes ceiling-mounted bus duct with movable electrical disconnects for power drops. All utilities are located in the ceiling, including power and compressed air. This allows the school to reconfigure robots anywhere along the bus duct line. In fact, the design is so flexible that Tri Star’s robotics instructor reconfigured the room layout during construction and implemented a different configuration on the first day of school. These flexible strategies are applicable to both demonstration and full-size robotics equipment.

robot lab 

Photo by William Manning Photography / courtesy of Fanning Howey

Room to Thrive. Give yourself plenty of room for security fencing, circulation, and storage.

Focus on Instruction

While the robotics lab will receive all the publicity, the adjacent classroom is where students spend most of their time. It is important to create a strong connection between the classroom and the lab. It is also critical to provide optimal workstations for students. At Tri Star, students start their year by building their own computers, which they later use in learning to program the industrial robots. Their workstations are custom-designed based on the input from Tri Star’s robotics director. Each workstation includes LED lighting, coding stations, soldering equipment and overhead tool storage. The larger classroom area includes desks with computer monitors that raise and lower via remote control. The configuration gives the teacher the ability to move from lecture to project-based learning with the click of a button.

Invest in Quality

During planning for the new Tri Star robotics lab, administrators and design team members visited similar facilities. Two things stood out during these visits. First, many school labs were dark and uninviting. Also, furniture, fixtures and equipment were often in poor repair. This was a result of the schools purchasing lower-quality items, rather than the more expensive equipment you would find in a professional setting.

The Tri Star team decided to make the investment in a better-quality workspace. The school spent additional money to obtain higher-quality and more durable welded steel mobile base workstations with butcher block tops and specialized robotics and computer workstations. The design of the high bay lab features 20-foot-tall side wall windows that bring natural light deep into the space. A polished concrete floor provides a high-end look while also being durable and easy to clean. The result is a learning environment that is functional and inspiring.

robot lab 

Photo by William Manning Photography / courtesy of Fanning Howey

Robots on Display. Carefully-planned views into the robotics lab create an inspiring backdrop for learning.

Put Learning Center Stage

The popularity of robotics programs makes them highly-attractive to potential students and their families. When planning for your robotics lab, make sure the space is front and center. At Tri Star, the high-bay robotics lab is visible from the nearby highway, thanks to the side wall windows. At night, the bright yellow robots are a striking sight for people passing the school on State Route 703. Inside the school, windows provide views into the lab from the student commons, the first floor corridor and the second floor corridor. If robotics is a big part of your brand, as it is at Tri Star, make sure the design celebrates the program in every possible way.

The design of robotics labs is a highly-technical endeavor. But if done correctly, a smarter place for learning will give students the skills they need to succeed in the workplace of the 21st century.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Douglas Rich, AIA, [email protected], is a project architect with Fanning Howey, an integrated architecture, interiors and engineering firm specializing in learning environments.

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