In the twenty years, technological advances have shaped our world. New modalities have been adapted to different professional areas, and one of them is the architectural fabrication. However, digital fabrication has innovated the architectural design approaches and construction techniques; also, studies in digital fabrication have captivated many designers’ eyes, especially those who are involved in architecture, engineering, and industrial design. Consequently, professionals have evaluated the excellent digital fabrication results and its performance according to some parameters—efficiency, product quality, and genuine design possibilities. Since the creation of digital fabrication, technological advances have modified the future of many industries, and the concept of design.

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MIT’s digital fabrication research; Source: Archdaily. ©

Wait for a second. What does Digital Fabrication mean?

The term Digital fabrication refers to the machine manufacturing process controlled by technological devices like computers. The manufacturing process consists of emerging computing-aided design, also known as CAD and Computer modeling software. The computer processes are divided into computer numerical control (CNC), which removes the material. The other is rapid prototyping (RP), the process that builds the object. Therefore, digital fabrication techniques are diverse, and we can find 3-D printing, Laser cutting, and CNC Machining. The first, 3-D printers, replicates digital objects and produces the same design on physical objects. These machines use a plastic filament to create the horizontal layers, and it takes a few hours to complete the product. The second technique known as laser cutter works with numerous CAD software. The laser-cut approach works with various materials, such as acrylic sheets, chipboard, wood board, and matte board. The time that takes to laser cut material is dependent on the intensity and other adjustments that the user can adapt. Last, the CNC milling machine is the third technique in digital fabrication. CNC machining technique transforms G-Codes to produce CNC components that work with nine axes. Furthermore, the method works with different materials, such as foam board, plastics, and specific wood types. To summarize, digital fabrication is a concept that has been innovated in the design industry, and it has facilitated enthusiastic designers to have a different design approach.

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Examples of digital Fabrication; Source: ©London Design Collective

How digital fabrication started? How has it changed over the years?

For more than thirty years, architects have been using CAD software to represent technical drawing; before using this software, professionals used to elaborate hand drawings and craftsmanship skills to define models. In parallel, the aeronautical engineering industry started to develop ideas and techniques related to CAD/CAM manufacturing. In a relatively short period, architects began to adopt new modalities created by the latest technologies from industrial design and engineering. As a result, architects joined the latest tendencies for investigation about digital fabrication and started developing new techniques to create buildings. In 1989, Frank Gehry’s firm was one of the pioneers in introducing digital fabrication to architecture. The reason was to optimize the production of intricate and innovative architectural designs; the same designs were almost impossible to execute without computer intelligence. One first architectural design to use digital fabrication was the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, United States. At the beginning of the 21st century, Gehry technologies created a project method with a version of Catia, which assisted with digital and construction management. Later, few architectural firms adopted the new modalities in the industry to produce an elaborated design. A significant number of designers were pleased by the results in construction. Another example of early digital fabrication is the Big Belt House in Montana, United States. Subsequently, the interactive process of designing architecture and evaluating the digital fabrication proposed a new methodology on construction, which opened new architecture possibilities.

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Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles.
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Complex Interior Spaces; Source: Archdaily. ©

Digital fabrication innovations allowed some advances to manufacture precast structural elements. Architects in the profession were encouraged to explore new techniques and materials. One of these materials was concrete, which facilitated the fabrication of non-conventional shapes. In the early 2000s, some structures started implementing these technologies in Europe, such as The Spencer Dock and The Science Center. The early building, who followed the tendencies of digital fabrication, reflected the infinite fabrication possibilities with complex geometries.

Nevertheless, concrete was not the only revolutionary material produced with digital fabrication; it was also wood applied with CNC milling. Some of the same early applications are exemplified in The Mercedes Benz Museum, and this construction achieved curvatures through its plywood pieces. After several experiments with materials and techniques, the designer focused on sustainable solutions supported by digital fabrication. Consequently, these strategies benefitted the process of producing geometric pieces at a lower cost and considering the ecological consequences. Simultaneously, emerging techniques allowed designers to have more freedom about textures, rigid, dynamic, and flexible formworks. One of the institutions that initiated the investigation in robotics and materials fabrication was the ETH Zurich University. This institution created Robotic Slipforms to produce a dynamic formwork made of concrete. Another example of an advanced application with concrete is the Studio’s design for the Music Theatre. The projects achieved and spatial arrangement with twisted concrete structures that connect the interior spaces from the auditorium. The new technologies have demonstrated the capabilities of geometrics strategies and increased the movements of the formwork in the space and the architecture designs’ approaches.

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Mercedes Benz Museum in Germany; Source: ©Mercedes-Benz Website

Furthermore, some of the innovations in digital fabrication relate to the freedom of construction and the optimization of the production of the soft surface. In 2011, one of the leading figures in the investigation field about “Variable-Density Graded Fabrication of Concrete” was Nery Oxman at MIT’s Research Lab. As a result, the fabrication allowed the articulation of some properties elements from concrete. As a result, considering the use of concrete reinforced numerous buildings and recently opened a new field of investigation in CNC technology. The experimentation with materials allowed designers to investigate design approaches by tilling, sectioning, forming, and contouring. One of the best examples of these techniques was applied to the GEOtube in a high-rise tower in Dubai. The Faulders Studio proposed an external vernacular salt-water system, which creates salt-crystals deposits. The investigation forces of the mesh interaction with pollution were initiated with CAD visualizations. At the moment, the designers replicated the digital visualization to the actual construction, the mutual formation between the atmospheric pollution and the mesh material resulted as it was expected. Finally, new experimental technologies have created an interactive relation between the visualization and actual behavior of materials in architectural construction.

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GeoTube Tower; Sources: ©Faulders.

Digital fabrication in architecture allowed us to build elements that fulfill the desire of architects for freedom of design and efficient solutions. The digital fabrication customized formworks by adding or subtracting techniques, making designers think critically about the design process and ways to integrate creative ideas. Also, the complexities of this topic allowed the accessibility of efficient and sustainable solutions at a lower cost. As a result, architects have been looking to explore new materials expressions and modify what we have known as Modern architecture. Digital fabrication also offers future opportunities for research on the composition of materials and its relation to building construction. For architects, the introduction of technology in the field created a new alternative of design and making. The relatively new digital fabrication tendencies have given opportunities for a new generation of designers to process architecture through digital design, and the same has developed new systems of growing technologies that have modified the delivery of building components.

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Digital Fabrication in Seville, Spain: Source: ©Yatzer

Andreina Sojo comes from Caracas, Venezuela. Seeking for higher education, Andreina studied in Broward College, Florida, and Seville, Spain as a recipient of the William E. Green Scholarship. Andreina graduated with honors, and she transferred to the University of Florida to complete her Bachelor's in Architecture and Minor in Landscape Architecture.