Digital Fabrication

In the past decade, digital fabrication (digital manufacturing) has gained immense attention as a topic of interest and research. Before we get into the specifics, let us first understand what digital fabrication (digital fab) even means. A quick search on Google gives you this:

Digital fabrication is a type of manufacturing process where the machine used is controlled by a computer. The most common forms of digital fabrication are: CNC Machining: where, typically, shapes are cut out of wooden sheets.

This is somewhat true, however there are few things I would like to clarify — 

  • Digital fab is not just an industrial process anymore. Digital fab tools go beyond just the connotation of manufacturing. These tools are now coming to your desktop and everyone will have access to them. There is a whole movement called the “Maker Revolution” that is stirring up the entire manufacturing industry by bringing back the idea of “making at home”, which was lost to the industry revolution and mass manufacturing.
  • Back in the day, CNC was sort of the most popular digital fabrication tool. Today, there are numerous machines such as 3D printers, Laser Cutters, Water Jet Cutters, Textile Printers, Hand-Held intelligent drills, that fall into the digital fabrication tool category.
  • Beyond just the physical tool itself, software that drives these tools plays a pivotal role in how these tools are used and things are made. Software not only drives and controls these tools but also helps you create digital models, which can then be made. This is particularly interesting to computer science folks.
  • Remember I said “Intelligent drill” ? Yes, there are drilling machines and other power tools, which can sense what you are drilling into and prevent accidents and injuries. This is possible because of the integration of intelligence into the drilling machine itself. Computers and fabrication machines are not separate entities anymore.

Okay, this is all great. Why would I need Digital Fabrication ? Well, with digital fab, you can make almost anything ! In fact, there is course taught by Physicist Neil Gershenfeld at MIT that is called “How to make almost anything”. Let me take one of the projects I worked on while I was interning with Prof.Patrick Baudisch at Hasso Plattner Institute. Despite being a computer science project, it had a major physical prototyping component that I was involved in. The first prototype used a Laser Cutter to cut Acrylic (a popular material for Laser Cutting) and assemble them. The final result was a electro-mechanical device.

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ProtoPiper from Hasso Plattner Institute HCI Lab

The hand-held device uses a 2D structure, namely tape as the raw material, and folds it into a tube through a clever mechanism. Pushing a button extrudes the tube and one can now start sketching with this device in physical space. This self-contained system gave rise to a new tangible medium for expression, with the device as the paint brush and the whole world as the canvas. Creation of this whole new medium was possible within a short span courtesy fabrication tools. The device was further refined using other fabrication tools like 3D modeling and 3D printers.

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ProtoPiper from Hasso Plattner Institute HCI Lab

Between the initial prototype and the final outcome, there were innumerable attempts and failures at figuring out what works and what does not. We brainstormed design ideas on whiteboard and quickly made it on a LaserCutter and 3D printer to see if that works. If something did not, we debated why it did not and made the mechanism better. The availability of these prototyping tools made it possible to build the device and explore our idea within 3 months time. I realized how getting your hands dirty and building things will change your thinking. Rapid Prototyping and digital fabrication tools enable you to conceptualize your ideas and iterative through it. It can take you out of your comfort zone and think of disruptive ideas, which are hard to come by. I will leave this post on that note and further continue posting about what other people have been doing with these fabrication tools and also talk about how fabrication has given researchers, artists and makers the freedom to explore and innovate by making and fabricating physical things.

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About Udayan Umapathi

Udayan is an artist, engineer, designer and a HCI researcher. He is currently pursuing his MS/PhD at the MIT Media Lab with Prof.Hiroshi Ishii. His research statement quotes that he wants to invent “novel mediums for expression and creativity”. His work looked at digital fabrication tools as platform to create these mediums and investigated how to turn these tools themselves into the novel mediums. Currently with Prof.Ishii he is exploring the “radical atoms” them by combining physics, material science, biology and design.

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In addition to scientific curiosity, start-up bug bit him early on life. He had his own digital media company and also founded a silicon valley company that focusses on making low-tech tools for digital fabrication.

If Udayan is not making something at a lab, he is playing with nature, engaging with new people, studying cultural aspects and wondering why people are the way they are. He often questions critical aspects of human life through his art installations.

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