“Before the term spline came to refer to a mathematical function producing smoothness (and subsequently, in design software, to a smooth curve with control points) it was once an actual physical drafting tool, a flexible metal or wood strip with weights used to hold the spline in place. This tool developed out of necessity to design smooth, aerodynamic forms and leveraged specific material properties . . .”
*All images courtesy the author. PATH, “(re)STOCK.” Intersecting hand and machine, digital and analog. (Physical, hand craft) Welding joints provides a strong and permanent assembly. Oxides from the welding process leave a rich coloration and evidence of the manual TIG welding process (joints are welded on the backside with ERCuSi-A Silicon Bronze filler rod).
images, clockwise from top left: PATH, “(re)STOCK.” Intersecting hand and machine, digital and analog. (Digital) Parametric model applicable to multiple geometries—triangulated structure and intersection points (parametric nodes). The system combines linear off-the-shelf elements with highly customized, digitally produced joints and is entirely scalable; (Physical, machine craft) Focusing on a single joint prototype—3-D printed stainless steel nodes. Made from sintering stainless steel and infused with bronze alloy. The joints have a relatively high strength (99ksi ultimate tensile strength, and 66ksi yield). Joint design and geometry can be optimized for assembly method (drilling/tapping, plug welds, fillet welds, and so on); (Physical, assembly) Resolving multiple angles at a single point in space would be extremely difficult using traditional fixturing; instead, the joint is self-aligning and negates the need for jigs or fixtures. Off-the-shelf round stainless stock (or any other type of linear stock as needed, structurally or aesthetically) “plugs” into the joint. Slots designed into the digital model provide for weld access; (Intersecting processes) The precision and consistency of the machine (3-D printed stainless part) coupled with the manual craft of TIG welding (mild steel plate and silicon bronze filler rod) offer new possibilities in terms of fabrication and aesthetics.
Before the term spline came to refer to a mathematical function producing smoothness (and subsequently, in design software, to a smooth curve with control points) it was once an actual physical drafting tool, a flexible metal or wood strip with weights used to hold the spline in place. This tool developed out of necessity to design smooth, aerodynamic forms and leveraged specific material properties, as the design tool (the spline itself) and the construction methods (bending wood for shipbuilding) were largely reciprocal. A certain operative logic underlies this development—beginning with a material and construction method, then extracting the usable or desirable properties and restraints, and finally, using those parameters to generate design tools that can then be applied to various scenarios.
For any exploration rooted in the physicality of making, this model—one that conflates form generation, material properties, and fabrication processes—seems a fitting one. However, despite recent progress in digital design software, still lacking is an equal push to incorporate material exploration and to fully understand the potential of fabrication tools. As students and professionals alike are increasingly adept in the use of digital design software, now ubiquitous throughout universities and professional practices, the potential for form making appears limitless. And yet the ways in which forms are assembled or fabricated often ignore a wealth of nondigital processes. As a result, the material reality of our designs too often falls short of our digital ambitions.
Emerging digital fabrication tools enable the production of countless new and previously unrealizable geometries, but that capacity does not necessarily translate into elegant solutions. For example, just about any form or object can be 3-D printed out of a variety of materials, yet other than pattern or texture, this may have no direct correlation to materiality or tectonics. Smooth polished glossiness is not a material. Even a completely smooth tectonic has a material and detail solution that cannot be described via 3-D printing alone (unless the 3-D print is the actual material being used). Other examples include the countless projects that are produced via sophisticated software and fabrication methods, but which then rely on something as crude as pop rivets for detailing and assembly.
Elegant designs should seem effortless, yet belie knowledge of every detail and process, allowing a synthesis of form, material, and fabrication. Those solutions are rare, and they almost always involve an innate understanding of materials and the tools that form them. So how, then, can we begin to elevate the level of what and how we output to the level of what we propose digitally? I believe the answer is not to delve deeper into the digital realm, in search of better, more precise “definitions,” but to work at a more fundamental understanding of materials, tools, and processes themselves. A firm believer in hands-on experimentation, I feel there is much to be learned by working physically with materials before, or in parallel with, any digital design exercise.
This physical experimentation is invaluable, whether it takes place through computer numerically controlled (CNC) versioning or through learning traditional fabrication techniques. (Many seem to forget that most CNC processes, both additive and subtractive, are rooted in traditional ones.) Only through firsthand experience with materials and their forming processes can we gain the tacit knowledge that ultimately affects how we design. It brings empirical observation into the feedback loop—physical reality informing the digital.
Learning by physically working with materials and tools can only broaden our understanding of what is possible—it is an open-ended process of discovery. Working exclusively with the digital starts to feel homogeneous, producing predictable and expected outcomes. Likewise, working with traditional methods alone has limitations in terms of complexity, customization, repeatability, and so on. Supplementing one with the other allows for unscripted and unexpected results. This indeterminacy also provides space for inserting individual experience into the process. Traditional fabrication processes offer a rich catalog of strategies for design method, material formation, and connection detailing that can supplement digital work. Delving into this knowledge can influence how we approach making digitally. Additionally, digitally fabricated pieces often require post-tooling processes such as assembly, fastening, or finishing—perfect moments for the intervention of the “hand.” In this intersection, between hand and machine craft, I believe there are further opportunities for experimentation that stand to lead us away from the ubiquity of digital fabrication and toward a richer, more composite way of making.