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Digital fabrication

Emerging tools and techniques for more efficient, creative and sustainable construction

Emerging tools and techniques for more efficient, creative and sustainable construction

Exacting use of materials. Robots that can produce new materials from waste glass and concrete. Ambitious structural forms, designed and realised cost effectively and with little waste.

The tools and techniques that we now call ‘digital fabrication’ are enabling us to approach the production of the built environment in far more efficient ways than ever, transforming traditional processes and providing new design possibilities. It’s an ethos with beneficial implications for the entire design, engineering and construction process, bringing designers, engineers, clients and constructors into closer collaborations.

We use digital fabrication to address sustainability goals, enhance creativity and improve on-site safety.


In traditional design we tend to overuse materials – largely for reasons of construction cost and simplicity. By shifting construction to factories, using modular prefabrication or even robotics, we can be more precise in the use of materials, using elements that assemble more efficiently.

Conserve and reuse resources

Given the CO2 emissions caused by concrete production, anything that reduces the need for additional pouring could improve sustainability in the sector. Fortunately, as a process, digital fabrication enables designers to look creatively at already-used resources like concrete and glass as potentially reusable materials.

We have designed processes where buildings are sliced into concrete strips, compressed, then digitally cut into precise parts for a completely new building. Today’s digital analysis tools and the performance-based design processes we can carry out, mean that we can analyse precisely the strength, usability and performance of the salvaged materials with precision and confidence. Digital fabrication also enables the design of new workable forms from these existing resources.

Others in the sector are pursuing similar ideas. New techniques like Smart Slab, developed at ETH University, Switzerland are demonstrating incredible efficiency and resource savings. By 3D printing complex formwork you can achieve a staggering 70% reduction in weight compared to a standard slab. It reduces waste in design, as you only produce structural elements for where you really need them.

Extending the life of existing buildings

In modern cities, glass facades are the norm – presenting a major issue for the future. As many buildings age, certain components such as facades or glazing elements, require repair or replacement works that are deemed too costly – with wasteful demolition seen as the solution.

Digital fabrication techniques now make repairs and servicing viable, by taking apart and refurbishing individual facade units safely with robotics, and then manufacturing one-off replacement parts, we can prolong the life of buildings and lower demand on materials.

Circular economy

The way the built environment industry uses materials is too profligate. Circular economy principles, of designing for re-use, keeping materials at their highest value for longer, holds promise, and digital fabrication techniques can make the approach easier to realise. We’re also working on digital materials passports, a new way to codify resources for easier identification and re-use, decades in the future.

Enhanced creativity and design

Digital fabrication allows us to expand our design imagination, allowing for more varied, organic and ambitious forms. At the Sagrada Familia, digital fabrication, backed by traditional masonry techniques, are allowing us to complete Gaudí’s incredible vision.

As a group of techniques, it liberates designers to think more broadly about how a proposed scheme can be achieved, in both materials and structure, at costs that work given local labour availability and other constraints, whether that’s The Little Island in NYC, or at The Heritage Museum in Mangarh, India.

Featured project

MX3D: Amsterdam's robot printed footbridge

Amsterdam’s robot printed steel bridge is a 12-metre long digital design masterpiece with curved, raw steel balustrades that belie its high-tech origins. Fully 3D printed in stainless steel, the bridge is the culmination of a long-running dream that welds traditional steelwork and advanced digital modelling into an inspired, structurally sound piece of public urban infrastructure.

Learn more about our work

But digital fabrication isn’t simply valuable on complex or unique projects. The approach leads to more efficient uses of materials or optimised structures in everyday contexts too, where typical fabrication techniques leads to things being simplified.

Improve site safety

Digital fabrication embodies a mindset more typical of automotive/aerospace manufacturing than traditional building sites. This leads to a safer, assembly-driven process in controlled, lower risk working environments. With more tasks achieved off-site during manufacturing, the construction site itself can become a safer, more efficient workspace, driving up productivity at the same time.

Many common tasks involve a level of personal health and safety risk: working at height, overhead work, physically repetitive tasks, lifting and placing heavy objects. Designing more efficient assembly reduces these risks. By bringing more of the design and construction process into the digital realm, digital fabrication enables more detailed training and on-site guidance through technologies like VR and AR, improving understanding among the constructors on site.

Proven technology. New capabilities.

One aspect of all digital technology is that you can discern potential future uses, even if they’re not yet with us today. Digital fabrication continues to gain in potency and value as a body of tools and practices. It also challenges our industry to adapt our entire design and manufacturing process, to realise the value of this digital-first approach.

We can already foresee an improved construction process, using digitally fabricated, factory produced parts, with VR/AR construction guides, to enable those without traditional skills to build their own homes, at lower cost. Robots with machine learning capabilities are already beginning to show promise as the builders of the future, an idea explored in a recent collaboration between Arup and UCL, London. It promises to transform the human contribution to the built environment, making it more inclusive than before.


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