Expanded Mechanisms / Empirical Materialisms

Machines and material are vitally connected and reciprocally constrained. Each responds dynamically to the other through a range of geometric, chemical, and physical events that the designer must choreograph to deliberate effect. Today this dynamic interaction can be automated, but its full spatial and formal potential can only be interrogated through active invention. Just as scripting allows designers to make new tools, hacking enables the creation of new machines and, perhaps, new modes of material operation.

In this class, students will make machines to create new material effects. The horizon of the class will be bounded by the physics of materials themselves. The rules of material change—bending radii, elastic limits, viscosity, and so forth—will be instrumental in the machine design, becoming geometric laws and ultimately mechanical rules that shape elastic design ambitions. There will be a particular interest in formed materials and parametric molds: the bending, forming, stamping, casting of concrete, glass, metal, plexiglass, and wood. But machine operation may also be chemical or even geomorphic, and the class will research processes such as accelerated weathering, erosion, deposition, corrosion, and state change. The machines will operate on typical materials up to and perhaps exceeding their elastic limit—to breaking, shredding, shattering—to open the possibility for reconstitution in a transformed state. In fact, the course encourages material hacking, or the evocative discovery of alternative system through radical experimentation. The specific tactile and textural qualities of the result will be an integral part of the experiment.

We will draw on a library of historical precedents for automatic formmaking over the last two centuries including drawing machines, model machines, fabrication machines, and machines for simulating sensations as precedents our current digital tools. With each historical evolution of machinery—for drawing, glass forming, metal bending, concrete shaping, and so forth—we will deconstruct and diagram the parametric motions that define their kinetic transformations, and trace the mechanical limits of form as a limit of design itself. Case studies of contemporary machines—such as Roxy Paine’s erosion machines, and Heinrich Heidersberger’s rhythmogramm machine—will complete the historical survey.

This polemic history will inform a design project of machines for material transformation. Students will work in groups of two or three to create both a motor-controlled, CNC machine of their own design and a series of material experiments uniquely producible through this machine. These machines may be standalone or may substantially modify existing CNC machines. Small examples of the devices will be prototyped using Arduino, a motor control tool, and larger prototypes will be built with industrial stepper motors. A series of technical workshops on controllers, industrial stepper motors, kinetic motion, and the physics and chemistry of material deformation will aid the students in the construction of their own novel design machines. It is expected that full use of existing CNC equipment would be made to produce these new machines. Post-processing of the material experiments—that is, the injection of craft—is encouraged.