Manufacturing Freeform Architecture
by Kevin Chaite Rotheroe
Still mired in decades-old technologies, most architects are missing one of the greatest opportunities of the computer revolution. Even if they use computer-aided drafting software, these architects are following an old pattern of creating paper drawings for the later interpretation—or misinterpretation—by builders with conventional tools. Why shouldn't the architect's computer do the construction too?
Cars and aircraft are now entirely designed, analyzed, and tested in a digital environment. Buildings have this same potential. Already in a few research environments, technologies borrowed from industrial design are being put to use in forming scale models and full-scale building components.
A New Design and Manufacturing Paradigm
Over the past fifteen years, and especially since the mid-1990s, computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) has emerged in fields other than building design and construction.
This new paradigm has been enabled by dramatically more powerful and less expensive computing, sophisticated solid and surface modeling software such as ProEngineer, Alias/WaveFront, and SolidWorks, and software making it possible to assign material properties to digital representations and perform functional and structural analyses of components and assemblies.
The most exciting development is that these digital models can now be directly translated into tangible three-dimensional form. This is done either with computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) milling, a subtractive process, or solid freeform fabrication, often referred to as rapid prototyping, an additive process.
Likewise, the tools (molds, patterns, dies) required to indirectly manufacture components can be produced using data obtained from digital models. Much of our material world is created and formed using a process where design, representation, analysis, documentation, and production are becoming a relatively seamless collaborative process dependent on digital representations of components and assemblies.
A detailed view of a powder-coated, stainless steel, freeform architectural column prototype.
Photo: Kevin Rotheroe
Foam patterns for casting freeform architectural column components that have been CNC milled from ProEngineer CAD models.
Photo: Kevin Rotheroe
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