A couple of years ago, digital fabrication was making headlines regularly, promising to drastically change the architecture practice. The revolution in architecture might not have arrived yet, but research projects, experiments and the dedication of several architects and universities already opened a new realm of possibilities for architectural expression. Therefore, it seems appropriate to give an overview of the impact the technology had so far within the architecture practice. This article covers the different types of processes within the field and the projects that experiment with them, with the scope of reframing the architectural potential of digital fabrication.
Main types of digital fabrication
Digital fabrication covers any manufacturing process controlled by a computer. Although technologies are constantly expanding, they mainly involve one of three types of methods: additive manufacturing, subtractive manufacturing and robotic manipulation of any kind.
Additive manufacturing, which is commonly known as 3D printing, consists of layering material. The technology emerged in 1983, using stereolithography (SLA), a process involving shooting an ultraviolet laser beam into a mass of photopolymer, which then turns into solid plastic. There are now many other processes out there (some covered in this Archdaily article), and the technologies evolve at a fast pace. The range of materials expanded beyond plastics to include metals, glass, clay, nanocomposites, and even human tissue. There is also research taking place to develop reliable multi-material 3d printers.
In subtractive manufacturing, objects are carved out of a solid block, CNC milling being the most common process. It is the introduction of robotic arms that extended the possibilities for CNC milling, as the higher the number of axes of movement, the more enhanced its capabilities. Laser cutting and hot wire, conventional model-making techniques, also fall within this category of subtractive manufacturing.
The third category, robotic manipulation, encompasses any other form of digital manufacturing like bending, folding, weaving. It holds the advantage that, equipped with the right tools, robots can be utilized subsequently for a variety of tasks, and the possibilities are endless. One such example is MIT's Fiberbots project, a cooperative robotic manufacturing process, designed for the digital fabrication of large-scale objects and structural elements, which uses weaving and free-form printing. The research intended to move away from uniaxial fabrication and create a framework applicable across scales.
The architectural applications of the technology seem to have penetrated the profession slower than expected, even once some milestones have been reached, such as the first 3d-printed house or the first 3d-printed steel bridge. Nonetheless, digital fabrication is gradually shifting the paradigm and here are some of the areas impacted.
Automating construction processes
Digital fabrication, already adopted on a large scale in industrial manufacturing, holds great potential for the automation of construction processes, as showcased by projects such as SAM ( the semi-automated mason), a robot capable of laying bricks at almost three times the speed of a human worker. A more sophisticated take on the matter is showcased by ETH Zurich's automated construction of several timber-framed structures, where cutting, drilling holes for connections and assembly is all done using robots.
Developing new materials
Another exciting breakthrough should be expected in the realm of innovative building materials, and MIT's Mediated Matter Group strives to achieve just that. Their research is of most importance as some common construction materials like concrete have a very high carbon footprint. An example of the broad-ranging scope of material development is Neri Oxman's and MIT's research project Aguahoja. The design employs cellulose, chitosan, pectin and water, all elements found in nature, hence biodegradable and environmentally friendly, to create materials with specific mechanical and optical properties.
Optimizing form and material usage
Digital fabrication offers more efficient use of materials across a variety of structures and designs. Smart Slab, developed by ETH Zurich, showcases a radically optimized, and highly precise design and fabrication process. The concrete slab is made using 3D-printed formwork and has been computationally designed for minimal use of material necessary to make it load-bearing. The project is part of a broader research endeavor, the DFAB House, an investigation into how digital fabrication can change architecture, comprising of five fabrication methods applied to different architectural elements.
Opening the door to new aesthetics
Like any construction process, digital fabrication also holds the possibility for new aesthetics. For the most part, the geometric complexity of a component is of no relevance in digital manufacturing and doesn't impact the costs, thus allowing for bespoke designs, incorporating intricate patterns. Greg Lynn is one of the pioneers of digital fabrication in architecture, and the champion of a particular architectural expression, using the tool path of the carving machine to create the aesthetic of the final object. Another exemplification of the versatility and aesthetic potential of digital fabrication is the Concrete Choreography project. Developed at ETH Zurich, the series of concrete columns displays different ornamentation and surface textures created using layered extrusion.
Creating the framework for open-source design
While the open-source design is still an emerging concept, the spreading of digital fabrication technologies creates an ideal environment for the development of this trend. A few years back, Space 10 launched Growroom, an open-source spherical garden, easily replicable using sheets of plywood and a CNC milling machine. On the same note, another platform taking advantage of the ubiquity of digital fabrication tools is WikiHouse, which open-sources house designs requiring only access to a CNC machine and timber sheets to be built.
Digital fabrication is still in its infancy within the architecture practice. However, it has captured the imagination of architects and academia, therefore it might not be long before this body of work reaches a critical mass, thus penetrating main-stream design workflow. The advent of digital fabrication within the architectural field adds up to the profound changes that call for a reinvention of the profession.
Philip Yuan, Achim Manges, Neil Leach, Digital Fabrication, Tongji University Press, 2017
Jane Burry, Jenny Sabin, Bob Sheil, Marilena Skavara, Fabricate 2020 Making Resilient Architecture, UCL Press, 2020