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.

Within this context, this year’s course positions ceramic material systems as a vehicle for exploring applied research methodologies and investigation into the opportunities (and challenges) afforded by digital fabrication techniques. Building on nearly a decade of research by the Material Processes and Systems (MaP+S) group at the GSD and long-time collaboration with the Harvard Ceramics Studio in Allston (with Kathy King), this course will advance strategies for robotics, additive manufacturing, and other computational fabrication technologies. Ceramics are the first material created by humankind and are produced across scales and applications from the craft studio to high-volume, automated manufacturing environments. Easily manipulated by hand, it can just as easily be subject to digital technologies and robotic approaches. While ceramic-specific aspects of material design and manipulation will be taught, emphasis is on understanding ceramics as a microcosm of material research that offers insights that transfer to work with almost any material used in architecture.

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 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.


Due to the Labor Day holiday, this course will meet on the Monday schedule, 4:45 PM, on Wednesday, August 31st. NOTE: The first class meeting will be held online on Wednesday, August 31st.

This course will meet offsite on Monday afternoons.