“Digital Fabrication is a Trend Topic”

Seyma Gürel Saydam is a researcher in the field of digital fabrication of concrete. At the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at ETH Zurich, she is working on new types of concrete in order to enable sustainable designs and faster construction. Seyma says that while digital fabrication is trending, there are still limitations of technology within the process. This is a challenge that researchers need to address.

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Seyma, how do you tell your grandparents what you do?

I say that I work with concrete and robots. They find it very interesting and don't understand how I pour concrete with robots. Then I show them videos and tell them how I pour concrete in different shapes and casts.

Where did you start your career?

My background is in civil engineering, but I have always been interested in materials. During my undergraduate studies in Istanbul, I joined the construction materials laboratory to start my research career. I was an undergraduate research assistant during that time and one of the first researchers to use the laboratory. After my bachelor's degree, I wanted to deepen my knowledge in materials science. I continued my career as a mechanical engineer and undertook a master’s degree. During my masters I worked on biomedical implants, for example hip implants. I kept changing my course of study but stayed with digital fabrication because it's a trendy topic.

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How did you come to the topic of digital fabrication?

Materia science is fascinating, you can change material behaviors with very small interventions. After my studies I knew both mechanical and civil engineering, and wondered how I could combine both worlds. The idea of printing and casting concrete with robots was interesting to me. I was looking for PhDs and found the NCCR Digital Fabrication. I thought, "Wow, I need materials science, I need some mechanics and I need to know about materials processing." That looks like a combination of what I do. So, I applied for a PhD position.

What were your first impressions when you came to ETH Zurich?

I had previously not seen any research or work related to digital fabrication in Turkey, so I did not have a clear idea what I was applying for. I still remember my initial conversation with Prof. Robert Flatt, he said: “You are going to mix a hundred liters of concrete. Do you know how to do that?” I said “Yes” but had no idea what I was getting myself into. I admit that i had formerly worked only on a small-scale mixing, but I am a quick learner, and was soon producing batches at scale.

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How do you see yourself contributing to science?

Curiosity is the key to research. If I work on something, it should contribute to a larger research question. When I do something, I of course, want it to be meaningful. When I work in this research domain, I am contributing in the development of technologies that benefit the larger NCCR research group, and beyond into real world construction.

Last one: Where is there still room for improvement in your research field?

In the field of digital fabrication, technology is developing rapidly. Research is now being conducted all over the world and many researchers, and industry people are contributing. I hope we will see more on-site digital fabrication driven construction in the future. In terms of concrete material science and processing, I hope we will improve our understanding of the material mixing so that we can achieve better control in scaled production. With advanced material design and better material processing we can more easily take our digitally fabricated structures out of the lab and get them implemented into the real-world applications. The existing equipment we use still imposes processing challenges and slow printing times however through our research we are aiming to change this!

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This portrait is inspired by the #NCCRWoman campaign, which introduces you to a different woman working in research at a Swiss National Center of Competence in research.