UArizona Team Wins Prize for Robotic Exterior Insulation System

wall-EIFS, a robotically applied, 3D-sprayable exterior insulation and finish system for building envelope retrofits, is one of 10 finalist prize winners of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Envelope Retrofit Opportunities for Building Optimization Technologies Prize, or E-ROBOT Prize. Each finalist team is awarded $200,000. View the team’s winning video entry.

The E-ROBOT Prize’s goal is to catalyze the development of minimally invasive, low-cost and holistic building envelope retrofit solutions that make retrofits easier, faster, safer and more accessible for workers. Jonathan Bean, University of Arizona assistant professor of architecture, and Wolfgang Fink, UArizona associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, created the wall Exterior Insulation and Finish System, or wall-EIFS, in collaboration with Energy Quest Technologies President Dewey Benson. 

“One of the biggest opportunities to address the climate crisis is improving the energy performance of existing buildings,” said Bean. “Technically, it’s tough to add insulation without compromising occupant health or building durability. And too often, energy improvements take away from, rather than enhance, the appearance of a building.”

wall-EIFS is a robot that operates from a stage track or scissor lift. The system evaluates existing conditions of a building and the quality of the insulation application in real-time using sensing technologies, saving more than 50% in time, labor and materials. 

“The wall-EIFS system offers durable insulation and aesthetic flexibility, executed with robotic precision in a fully automated manner,” said Fink. “wall-EIFS is intended to expand the market and accelerate retrofits of existing buildings. By creating a new skilled trade of robotic building retrofit operators, the system will facilitate the retrofit of buildings at scale in a safe manner while significantly reducing cost, as well as the energy footprint of the nation.”

“The patent-pending wall-EIFS is an innovative, market-responsive solution—a significant advancement in autonomous robot technology that can really move the energy-efficiency retrofit industry forward,” adds Doug Hockstad, assistant VP of Tech Launch Arizona, which along with UArizona Research Development Services’s Brian Adair supported the team.

For UArizona School of Architecture Director Robert Miller, the E-ROBOT Prize represents “a perfect alignment with school, college and university strategic goals of meeting the grand challenges of the built environment head on. wall-EIFS is an innovative, practical response that builds on our shared excellence in environmental research.”

Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Head Tamal Bose agreed: “Through the synergy of engineering and architecture, UArizona faculty such as Wolfgang Fink and Jonathan Bean are at the cutting edge of creating solutions that meet the grand challenges of a rapidly changing world. wall-EIFS is a prime example, and the team’s award is well-deserved and exemplifies the power of interdisciplinary scholarship at the University of Arizona.”

The E-ROBOT competition is one of a series of “American-Made Challenges” sponsored by the U.S. DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. These challenges are designed to “incentivize the nation’s entrepreneurs to reenergize innovation and reassert American leadership in the energy marketplace,” according to DOE representatives. NREL and 16 other national laboratories serve as key technical partners to work directly with teams to validate, build and test products and solutions. The teams also work with fabrication and manufacturing facilities to turn their proposals into working products.

The E-ROBOT Prize is composed of two phases, each designed to fast-track efforts to “identify, develop and validate disruptive solutions to meet building industry needs,” according to the DOE. Each phase includes a contest period where teams rapidly advance their solutions: Phase 1, Individual Solutions, selects up to 10 winners and offers a total of $2 million in cash prizes while Phase 2, Holistic Solutions, selects up to four winners, awarding another $2 million in cash prizes.

Though only Phase 1 winners may enter the Phase 2 competition, there is no requirement to do so. Bean, Fink and Benson have yet to decide whether they will advance wall-EIFS to Phase 2. 

Bean, who joined CAPLA in 2017, is a PHIUS Certified Passive House Consultant and serves on the board of the Passive House Alliance U.S. He also serves as scholarship chair for the Society of Building Science Educators. His architecture student teams have participated in the last four DOE Solar Decathlon Design Challenges, where they have developed the innovative SunBlock distributed district energy system concept. A faculty advisor for the Master of Science in Architecture Sustainable Market Transformation Concentration, Bean’s research transits the fields of building technology and energy use, consumer research, human-computer interaction, architecture and design with a focus on taste and consumption. He holds a doctorate in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley.

Fink joined the College of Engineering in 2009 after roles at the California Institute of Technology, University of Southern California and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is the inaugural Edward & Maria Keonjian Endowed Chair with joint appointments in UArizona’s Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Systems and Industrial Engineering, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and Ophthalmology and Vision Science. Fink is the founder and director of the Visual and Autonomous Exploration Systems Research Laboratory at Caltech and UArizona, and the UArizona Center for Informatics and Telehealth in Medicine. He also serves as VP of the Prognostics and Health Management Society. His research comprises autonomous robotic space exploration, human and brain-machine interfaces with particular focus on artificial vision implants for the blind, smart service systems, biomedical engineering for healthcare and computer-optimized design. An AIMBE fellow, PHMS fellow, SPIE fellow, College of Engineering da Vinci fellow, UArizona ACABI fellow and senior member of IEEE, Fink holds a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Tübingen and has more than 250 publications and 25 U.S. and foreign patents to date.

Benson is the founder and president of Energy Quest Technologies, a technology and manufacturing company that specializes in integrated, multi-energy cooling, heating and power systems. He received his master’s degree in controls from Arizona State University and worked at Honeywell Aerospace for 28 years. While at Honeywell, he was awarded 19 patents, leaving the company as technology fellow in controls and electronics in 2014 to continue his work at Energy Quest full-time.

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