Whether referred to as 3D printing, additive manufacture, or digital fabrication, the technique has long been viewed as potentially revolutionary. Remarkable pioneers, including many close colleagues, have created compelling demonstrations of its potential, but practitioners have often left with the conclusion “... but perhaps it’s not relevant for my client’s challenges right now.” I believe this response is now a little out of date. In this piece I want to explore why more built environment practitioners should embrace digital fabrication and discuss the growing number of ways it is relevant to everyday built environment tasks.
Beyond 3D printing
Firstly, digital fabrication is not just the “toothpaste” variety usually called additive manufacturing, where the part is built up by laying a bead of molten material or a layer of powder to be fused on top of the evolving solid. The evidence of this process is usually visible in the resulting part, although it can be machined (a subtractive process) to leave a smooth continuous surface.
Today, digital fabrication also includes bending and stretching material and the precise placement of components, to complement those additive and subtractive processes, so that a wider range of functional and attractive parts and large structures can be made, as most dramatically demonstrated by Kuwait International Airport currently under construction. Digital fabrication also has great relevance and value for major infrastructure schemes, saving clients from needing to hold a stock of unique components, as proposed by Arup director John Batchelor in his recent talk.
To solve design problems, engineers must often imagine how material forms could be made. Our imaginative toolbox should now include this growing array of digital techniques. Not only has there been a proliferation of new methods, but being digital, they can easily be reconfigured to suit the job in hand. The sheer potential of this can appear daunting; but when applied to the familiar requirements of adding, subtracting, forcing and positioning, it simply becomes part of the language of design, benefitting all kinds of day-to-day projects and tasks.
It can deliver publicly validated design
Great strides have been made in validating the properties of materials in parts made by digital techniques, for example the MX3D bridge made entirely from stainless steel weld metal is now certified for public service. This means the technique could be used in place of complex fabricated junctions in bridges and other structures, in compliance with design codes. Strategies for validating the properties of digitally fabricated parts in all sorts of materials are emerging quickly now and should no longer be assumed to be an obstacle.
Digital fabrication makes engineers’ lives simpler
Yes, digital methods excel at pluralities of one-off elements. But the technique can also be used to develop more regular designs, with added efficiency. Toolmaking was one of the first areas of industry to adopt digital fabrication because the benefits of efficiently making a mold in which to produce a quantity of identical parts are obvious. In concrete construction, there are now numerous digital ways to make the formwork that gives concrete its shape, including stretching a rubber sheet to a different shape time after time to make varied molds with no waste of material.
Digital brings greater efficiencies to design, manufacture and assembly
Two of the perennial challenges of constructing the built environment have been: to communicate the design to those who assemble it on site; and how to position something precisely where it should be. Both were historically solved to some extent by keeping the design orthogonal, the components either identical or obviously different and the spacing of parts regular, so that the instructions could be memorised.
The development of augmented reality (AR) tools allow the presentation of the parts and their required location in the field of view of the person assembling them. And soon after its use in aircraft wiring, AR has been used to speed the installation of steel reinforcement in concrete, avoiding errors and requests for information and allowing the spacing and sizing to be optimized to minimize carbon footprint. By designing to minimise material consumption and using technology to aid the skilled assembly process, everyone benefits.
In concrete construction, there are now numerous digital ways to make the formwork that gives concrete its shape, including stretching the formwork to a different shape time after time to make varied shapes with no waste of material.
Designing tomorrow, today
We’re excited by how digital fabrication can be applied in the real world, at each stage of a project, at every scale. It’s no longer limited to one-off projects (or pavilions). It’s time for the industry to bring the technique’s capabilities and efficiencies to every part of the built environment, from housing to commercial to infrastructure and beyond.
Watch our digital fabrication webinar series
From design to operation, emerging technologies like AI and augmented reality are challenging our assumptions about the built environment. Our clients look to us to integrate these cutting-edge technologies to create new experiences and services, and become leaders in their field.