Over use of materials and the wider need to improve efficiency in design and construction are two persistent challenges that the built environment faces. Digital fabrication is a constantly evolving set of technologies and practices, offering powerful ways to reduce resource consumption, achieve material and geometric complexity, and improve construction workflow. At Arup, we use digital fabrication to improve efficiency, address sustainability goals, enhance creativity and improve on-site safety, transforming traditional processes and providing new design possibilities.

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Reducing resource use

Traditional design approaches create difficulties in the built environment today, not least when it comes to resource consumption. Designing with digital fabrication helps us to meet these challenges, optimising material use and pushing the boundaries of complex design. 

By designing for modular prefabrication or even robotics, we can be more precise in our use of materials. In the first place, designing for digital fabrication allows us to take advantage of the potential to use moulds in part production and concrete construction to eliminate waste. This approach to design also creates more workable forms that assemble more efficiently. What is more, designing for digital fabrication allows us to find further efficiencies in material use by looking creatively at already-used resources like concrete and glass as potentially reusable materials. Taking advantage of new technology, we can analyse the strength, usability, and performance of the salvaged materials with precision and confidence.

In the case of Kuwait International Airport, designing with digital fabrication solved numerous client challenges. For example, we were able to half the material used in an already efficient concrete shell structure by designing for the fabrication of specialised concrete roof ‘cassettes’. A manufacturer then used Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) adaptable moulds to produce 70 thousand of these cassettes. Not only did this improve efficiency, but halving the weight of the roof also started a virtuous cycle, reducing the material needed for the columns and the foundation. The concept of strength through geometry can be widely used in ceiling design but it can also be adapted across typologies.

In this webinar, Tristram Carfrae, Former Deputy Chair at Arup discusses digital fabrication at Kuwait International Airport.

Material and geometric complexity

Designing for digital fabrication can make our material use more efficient, reducing costs and carbon in both manufacturing and construction. Designing in this way, however, also allows us to push the boundaries of geometric complexity by engineering with often untested materials. 

Design can combine with digital fabrication methods like 3D printing to streamline the production process, allowing designers to explore greater form freedom and to shrink delivery times. In the case of the MX3D Bridge, by honing the design process for the specific material and mechanical properties of 3D printed steel, we were able to ensure that this innovative design was validated for public service. 

For New York’s Little Island Pier, our design process rationalised the structure’s geometry to enable the fabrication of precast concrete pots for construction. This ensured that the aesthetic complexity of the scheme was maintained and that these pieces could be shipped economically and easily assembled on-site. Designing for 3D printing can be pushed even further, leading to the 3D printing of houses. It’s a technique that allows us to handle increased geometric and material complexity while still delivering the necessary efficiencies when it comes to time, cost, and carbon.

Little Island, New York
Little Island, New York - formed from sculpted precast concrete elements called ‘petals’
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Workflow agility

The flexibility and precision of digital fabrication means we can design for construction processes that are faster and more responsive to changing goals or conditions. Innovations in the way we design for, and use, new materials allow us to complete complex projects on time. 

Designing for digital fabrication has been a central part of our work to complete Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia. For this ambitious project, Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) cutting of stone and internal CNC precision drilling of channels in the stone enabled the design of post-tensioned prefabricated stone panels to reduce weight and to fit the existing foundations of the church.

Sagrada Familia
Digital fabrication has been a central part of our work to complete Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia.
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This precision use of new materials facilitated the installation of these panels at significant heights. The lightweight nature of these pieces also made it possible to lift them into place more quickly, minimising the impact on businesses and the community in the surrounding area.

The concept of bespoke precision construction applied at Sagrada Familia, can also be applied to retrofit (extending the life of existing assets) and infrastructure repairs. In this setting, digital fabrication will enable the individual replacement of elements needed in existing storm water collectors or tunnel shafts.