Digital Fabrication: From Bracelets to Buildings

Digital Fabrication: From Bracelets to Buildings

As WRNS explores new technologies in our own practice, we have found a nice synergy between internal research and the project-driven explorations we're undertaking with clients for high-tech environments. We're all navigating this rapidly evolving territory together — understanding how advances in virtual reality, BIM, 3-D printing, and digital fabrication can best inform the design process and the built environment.

It’s a fascinating time in the world of digital fabrication, and at WRNS, we are thinking about the ways it might inform our buildings, from the inside out. I often ask myself, how can this technology make our work more efficient? How will these advances change architecture, both aesthetically and technically? How might digital fabrication transform the way we think about the process of building? Most importantly, how do we design spaces for our clients —innovators themselves who are exploring technological advances from all kinds of vantage points?

Digital fabrication has gone from unaffordable and inaccessible to commercially available en masse. Anyone with access to the web or basic modeling software can part take in 3D printing, and companies like Shapeways or 3Dhubs allow for nearly anyone to have 3D printed objects shipped to them within a week. These days, some desktop printers are very much affordable and come fully assembled with built-in, user-friendly interfaces. The press has been effusive, with visions of a future literally built on digitally fabricated foundations. However, according to Neil Gershenfeld, “The revolution is not additive versus subtractive manufacturing; it is the ability to turn data into things and things into data.” So how does this impact the way we build?

Before joining WRNS, I took part in a residency at Autodesk Pier 9, where I tested Autodesk’s state-of-the-art tools to develop jewelry for my company Slice Lab. What does jewelry have to do with architecture? More than you’d think. 3D printing surface-focused jewelry and prefabricated façade components can be surprisingly similar as the field of digital fabrication evolves. Working with jewelry provides a smaller-scale approach to design, allowing for easy, rapid prototyping and production. Once you work out the structural challenges of geometry for say a bracelet, you can apply similar principles to larger architectural elements, and even buildings.

In our design process at the Pier, we explored the suspended weightlessness of marine life. This analysis was an attempt to understand the manner in which creatures like jellyfish move as a means to design and create unique structural forms, which would be nearly impossible to develop via traditional means. Working with generative software such as Grasshopper/Rhino and Maya, we interpreted what we observed into dynamic digital models for 3D printing. We used a range of rapid prototyping machines but primarily honed in on testing the capabilities of Autodesk’s DLP SLA Ember 3D printer. Using wax-infused UV polymer resins, we 3D printed design models to be used in a direct lost wax casting method, which ultimately solidified into raw silver that was later professionally finished.

With respect to Gershenfeld, I could not agree more. At Slice Lab, we like to take our parametric designs into reality, which boils down to understanding data. It is the translation of this data into the tangible world that carves out our niche in this field.  We use the most appropriate methods of fabrication necessary to simplify complexity and deliver our projects.