Material Systems: Digital Design and Fabrication

Digital design and fabrication technologies have become integral to the discourse surrounding contemporary design and architectural practice. The translation from design to realization is mediated by a range of tools and processes whose development is informed over time by material properties, skill, technology, and culture. As a whole, these systems are the vehicle by which design teams, manufacturers, installers, and ultimately users engage the materiality of architecture. Parallel technological developments relating to the way in which things are designed (digital modeling, simulation, generative design, etc.) and the way things are made (automation, computer-controlled equipment including robotics, advanced materials, etc.) have afforded new opportunities and challenges related to the realization of new forms in architecture, part customization, user-centered design, and enhanced building performance. While these technological advancements have radically increased the diversity of achievable material effects in design and architecture, the industrial fabrication technologies at the core of this production method are only just being considered as a venue for design intervention or creative exploration.
 
Within this context, this year’s course positions material systems and the numerically controlled machines which manipulate them as a venue for speculative design research. This semester’s virtual learning environment offers an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider existing paradigms in fabrication-based architectural research. During the first phase of the course, students will construct modular, digitally controlled machines at home from a kit, provided in part by the instructors. A second phase will focus on the development of a novel material process and will leverage the machines fabricated in the first phase to construct a machine designed to generate a specific material effect. 

The course includes weekly lectures (including guests from related industries and practice), discussions, and hands-on workshops. Lectures include a historic overview of material systems, fundamentals of fabrication and manufacturing, strategic customization, digital and physical prototyping, digital simulation, introduction to robotic systems, introduction to product development, production economics, research methods, and other topics. Selected readings of book chapters and papers will supplement topics taught in class. Technical workshops will introduce core concepts in machine design, microelectronics, motion control, kinematics, and material processes. Students will be introduced to a range of digital fabrication and robotic systems, and their related software environments and digital techniques. The course will typically be held synchronously during the Wednesday session and recorded for those in challenging  time zones. The Friday session will be held asynchronously through a combination of pre-recorded content or tutorials and real-time project troubleshooting etc. 

The technical and systems knowledge imparted in the class will be complemented by the teaching of research methods in the technology area, through a combination of readings and writing exercises. Emphasis will be placed on developing sound research methods within areas of design computation, digital fabrication, and related material processes. The course encourages a hands-on, experimental approach to digital making, from the design and fabrication of a custom machine to empirical testing of novel material processes.  There are no prerequisites for this course, only a willingness for open experimentation and critical evaluation of the presented processes and tools.