Digital Design and (Manual) Fabrication

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)).

A 'Contractor' with a CAD Drawing at a Site Using Manual Construction Techniques (
The Ideal Digital Design and Fabrication Work Flow (

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?


5 thoughts on “Digital Design and (Manual) Fabrication

  1. I agree that there is room in the field for Digital Design (managing the complexity during design time) with traditional manual fabrication as long as the fabrication complexity is low. I also have thought that this is not a binary decision, but a continuum with everything from manual cut and fit with digitally produced traditional plans to robot assembled or manufactured from the digital data (DDF). I think where you are thinking is more digitally ‘guided’ building…a summary of digitally produced complex data to build from that can be fabricated manually on site.

    There is something lost with this though. The argument for DDF is not only accuracy (avoiding rework loops) but also production efficiency and ability to handle fabrication or assembly complexity that could not be accomplished with manual techniques.

    In reality, the economics of DDF (in modern building contexts) will have increasingly pushed fabrication into the build process. You can do more (have more freedom) with less effort/cost. Digital measuring techniques are also finding their way to the job site for the same reasons and I think this adds something to the DDF process.

    I have considered is the role of feedback during assembly. Dennis Sheldon talks about the process of measuring work in progress and feeding this back to the fabrication (manual or automated) during construction. Digitally assisted manual building or DDF with feedback.

  2. Chris, I would love to do a study comparing the component and assembly complexities in DDF vs. manual fabrication. The conceptual tools for such a study definitely exist. Would you know of any that have already been done?

    And yes, I think that ‘Digitally Guided’ construction is a better term for what I’m trying to talk about. Being very far from a research and academic environment now (as a lot of us are :-P), I would really appreciate any leads you could give me on this. Is this an established term and is work being done on this?

    1. Chris, I googled the term ‘Digitally Guided Building Construction’ and found that this term is being used by Gehry Tech, are there any academic papers or other writings on this that you know of?

  3. Great post.

    We are currently struggling with these issues in the construction DDF wall skin over an existing wall. The on-site measurements, no matter how comprehensive, are not perfect and our assumptions do not match the accuracy of our CNC components. We have responded by creating a critical path that allows us to alter components as we assemble. The wall is digitally designed, fabricated and ultimately “digitally assisted.”

    It is imporntatnt to not forget how essential the designer’s engagment with materials and assembly is to the process of DDF. This is the significant difference when compared to traditional methodogies. When the digital designer and the fabricator become detached into silos of knowlage the DDF is process diminished.

    Jim Stevens

    1. Jim, I’m glad you liked this post. I took a look at the makeLab wall you’re making and it looks really interesting. I was wondering if you had any built-in tolerances to absorb discrepancies other than the ‘critical path’. I’d love to know more about how you’re using this ‘critical path’ and it’s significance on the overall design (if any). Thanks for reading and commenting!

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