Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Digital Fabrication in Academia and Industry

Today’s guest blog was contributed by Matt Trimble, founder of Radlab, Inc, Boston, MA, and visiting instructor in architectural technology at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and the Boston Architectural College.

As new fabrication technologies become progressively more integrated into academic curricula, particularly for architects, engineers, and industrial designers, the significance of merging academic exploration with industry production tools is becoming increasingly evident. In some cases students are working with industry tools to become better prepared for future endeavors. In other instances, students are working with industry tools with the opportunity to actually inform industry of previously unseen potentials. Each of these goals is similarly valid and important, but the latter is far more interesting.

The invention of personal computers, coupled with a steady increase in memory capacity and computer processing power allowed for a noteworthy technological migration in the '70s and early 80's. Sophisticated computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines, previously sustainable only by large corporations, started to become accessible to small machine shops. Since then, rapid prototyping technologies have evolved into a cohesive family of tools for production and exploration, including 2 axes of motion with waterjet, plasma, and laser cutting, 3 axes of motion with 3D printing, 3 and 4 axes of motion with CNC table routing, and 5, 6, and 7 axes of motion with robotic arm operations. Not only have these machines maintained and exceeded their prior status of importance to a variety of industries, but they've become, and are becoming, personalized. In the same way that you used to buy a 'desktop' computer, you can now buy a 'desktop' laser cutter, 3D printer, or CNC mill. The new possibilities provided by this kinship of computer controlled machines allow for new possibilities in prototyping, manufacturing, and the exploration of a wealth of undiscovered design solutions.

Within the context of academia, the production of new ideas, techniques, and inventions is manifold. However, it is through the medium of tools, with the goal of innovation, that these tend to come to fruition. Design and engineering programs around the world are still just beginning to grapple with CNC tools, but students are quickly becoming more adept at thinking, reasoning, and creating in an intensely algorithmic fashion. I teach a course in design computing and digital fabrication at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. Students there, both graduates and undergraduates, are learning about digital-physical workflows, time management, cost estimating, research, sketching, modeling, scripting, and prototyping. Students are also beginning to understand different machining protocols and infrastructural issues, including sensitivity to machine-specific tolerances and calibration. Periodically pulling back from the scope of the individual project, students also develop an appreciation for large-scale manufacturing methodologies.

Wentworth student work from left to right: Andrew Potter, Suzanna Gal, Aki Yoshida

In Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier reminds us that “Everything is possible by calculation and invention, provided that there is at our disposal a sufficiently perfected body of tools.” While Le Corbusier was writing about an age enamored by mass production, our obsession is one of mass customization. To a large degree a new “body of tools” is precisely what is responsible for this modal transition from mass production to mass customization.

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