Digital Fabrication Musings

When I was in school I worked in the digital fabrication laboratory, or the FabLab, as I called it. We had (in order of my personal affection) a couple of 3D printers, a vacuum forming machine, a laser cutter and a CNC mill. I never got the chance to see the multi-axis robotic arm in action before I graduated, but I did spend hours helping people draw the toolpaths for the CNC mill. I was there when the FabLab was built, and I was there when it was nearly ended because I almost burned it down. But that’s another post.

I always loved the CNC mill. For those who don’t know, a CNC mill (short for Computer Numerical Control) is basically a drill that moves in three directions, up-down, left-right, and forward-backwards. You create a CAD drawing (short for Computer Aided Drafting [I’m beginning to think I need a ‘dictionary’ post for ABBRs. (short for abbreviations)]) with something as simple as a shape to be cut out of a piece of material or something as complicated as a flowing, fabric-like surface. Then a computer program develops the toolpaths I mentioned, which is the line that the bit needs to follow in order to cut your shape.

I’m getting the feeling that you need a video:

As you can see, you can make really incredible objects with what is, if you think about it, a pretty simple process. Much of the FabLab was built using details designed to show off the CNC technology, including the lighting at the left and the cabinet pulls at the right:

Anyway, this is turning into a long way of saying that I bet on the wrong horse. CNC milling is yesterday’s news. 3D printing is the hot new technology on the scene. You don’t have to dig too deep to find a boodle of articles claiming that tiny 3D printers are revolutionizing manufacturing, that huge 3D printers will one day print houses, that 3D printers in medical labs will one day print organs, that 3D printers in kitchens will one day print you a sandwich. I made that last one up, I think, but it’s probably already real. Frankly, I’ve never been all that impressed. The implications are really cool in a big picture kind of way, but my experience of the output always underwhelmed me. On a CNC machine, you could put down a piece of plywood and, 30 hypnotizing minutes later, lift a real, useful part of a building off the table. The 3D printers put out fragile plaster casts of tiny houses that were neat objects, but I had trouble seeing them as more than mere trinkets. The other day, though, I came across an article about 3D printing that was really interesting (click the picture to read it, via Architizer):

You’re seeing the result of a bunch of silk worms “printing” a pavilion. You can read the article for more on how they did it, but to me there’s something really compelling about the thought of living creatures “printing” a space. Obviously people have domesticated animals to help build structures, and used animal products for clothing and shelter, but this is something really different. After some thought, I think what I like best is that you don’t know what the final product will be when you start. You create the framework with the intention of creating some kind of space, but the worms are going to make something a little different each time. There was an installation at Dumbarton Oaks that I liked for similar reasons. Here’s a refresher from last year:

Dumbarton Oaks Vine House

The artist creates the basic form, but the plants do what they do, and each one is unique. Also along those lines, my friend Nate and I came up with a great idea for a robot. A Roomba, as you know, bungles around a room, but eventually, through random trial and error, it gets the room mostly clean. Well, apply that same random chance to the creation of a building. It’s called: the Screw-mba. A terrifying robot trundles around a building site, drill whirring, lowering its sawblade and firing nails at random. A grotesque, knee-high assemblage of wood begins to take shape. Just come back to the site every now and then and see how your building is coming out. Eventually you’re bound to see something that you can live with! Next week I’ll have a link to our Kickstarter.

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