In most academic and scholarly settings the phrase ‘Digital Design and Fabrication’ is used almost like a single word. In fact I was associated with the Digital Design and Fabrication Group at MIT’s Department of Architecture for a large part of my SMArchS programme. However, I wonder if Digital Design must go together with Digital Fabrication, and what happens if they do not? Are we, as designers living in an age where we have access to both digital and non-digital methods of design and fabrication, missing out on opportunities by bundling Digital Design with Digital Fabrication? A vast majority of building construction in both industrialised and non-industrialised contexts still primarily uses manual, non-digital methods of construction. Does this mean that methods of ‘Digital Design’ can not be used in such contexts? (Digital Design being “a self contained way of designing exclusively within a computational environment” (Sass, Lawrence, and Oxman, Rivka. (2006). Materializing design: theimplications of rapid prototyping in digital design. Design Studies, 27, (3), p. 333)).
The main argument against being able to use Digital Design without Digital Fabrication is that the formal complexity of the resulting designs is impossible to achieve without the accuracy and versatility of Digital Fabrication technology. Once adopted, Digital Design and Fabrication also offers many conveniences such as the seamless transition from CAD model to fabrication data for CNC machines and the ability to make use of rapid prototyping in the design process. (Sass, Lawrence, and Oxman, Rivka. (2006). Materializing design: the implications of rapid prototyping in digital design. Design Studies, 27, (3), 325-55.) Digital Fabrication also offers advantages such as very high levels of accuracy in building components that increase pre-fabrication and reduce on-site assembly (Kieran, Stephen, and Timberlake, James. (2004). Refabricating architecture: how manufacturing methodologies are poised to transform building construction. New York: McGraw Hill.)
The use of digital fabrication using data from a CAD model means that under ideal conditions designers and fabricators do not have to deal with measurements and calculations while building. Since parts are CNC manufactured, they are highly accurate and their dimensions do not need to be verified before assembly – until and unless there is a mistake and something doesn’t fit. In a manual construction, however, measurement is an integral part of construction. The data from the design is read off dimensioned drawings and used by a construction worker to build a part of the building. The actual dimensions and orientation of the part then need to be checked against those in the drawing. This process of the construction worker having to follow dimensions given in a drawing issued by the designer has its origin in the Renaissance in the West.
Prior to that (and outside the West) the boundary between the designer and the maker was not as well defined and exact dimensions for a building were not completely specified prior to construction. Instead, construction would proceed by a process of Cutting and Fitting whereby a part would first be made and its dimensions would be measured subsequently in order to determine the dimensions of new parts that were dependent on the dimensions of the original part. (McGee, David. (1999). From Craftsmanship to draftsmanship: naval architecture and the three traditions of early modern design. Technology and Culture, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), pp. 209-236).
Given the extremes of Digital Fabrication and Cutting and Fitting, and all methods of manufacture in between, can we devise efficient means of executing Digital Designs without the use of Digital Fabrication?