Material Systems: Digital Design, Fabrication, and Research Methods

Computer-aided design, manufacturing, and engineering (CAD/CAM/CAE) technologies are increasingly integrated into many aspects of design and construction. ‘Digital Fabrication’ has been deeply embedded in today’s architectural discourse, enabled new modes of practice, and informed design pedagogy on a global scale. Whether driven by a desire for performance optimization, individualized customization, or formal freedom, designers have adopted these tools and are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the emerging built environment. Through workflow optimization and automation, designers are increasingly able to move seamlessly between the digital design environment, performance optimization and simulation, to physical realization by leveraging advanced tooling strategies including collaborative industrial robotic work cells. As technology evolves, this rapidly changing field continually presents architects and designers with new challenges and opportunities. This course ultimately pursues questions of design, positioning and testing technology as a driver in creative design processes, while providing an outlet for critical evaluation.

Offered as an open enrollment lecture/workshop, the course introduces students to the fundamentals of CAD/CAM with a particular focus on applications in architecture and reference to product design and related industries. Through a combination of weekly lectures, discussions and hands-on workshops, topics to be addressed include parametric digital modeling for fabrication, digital tooling approaches, fundamentals of fabrication Including direct and indirect methods, CNC machine environments, industrial robotics, prototyping techniques, building systems, and customization strategies. Automation approaches to design and manufacturing will be introduced, juxtaposing industrial and craft-based concepts.

Ceramic material systems will serve as the framework for contextual discussion, research, and experimentation surrounding digital design and fabrication technologies. While ceramics have a long history as a material in architecture, newly emerging methods of assembly and digital fabrication processes are now challenging the dominance of the ubiquitous tile. Ceramics have the potential to produce a great diversity of shapes through a variety of material processes. Craft-based manufacturing and high-volume industrial production of clay-based ceramics are both affected by digital and robotic fabrication techniques. These opportunities will be explored during semester-long group research projects in collaboration with the Harvard Ceramics Program and with support from the Spanish Ceramic Tile Manufacturer’s Association (ASCER).

As a required course in the MDesS Technology concentration, emphasis will be placed on developing sound research methods within areas of design computation, digital fabrication, and related material processes. Working in small groups, students will undertake one semester-long design research project culminating in an original scholarly paper and a series of related prototypes and design experiments. Beyond providing written and graphic descriptions of their work and its guiding concepts, students will be expected to articulate their proposal’s relevance to and potential impact on design practice, positioning their work within the larger discourse of digital design and fabrication through analysis of related case studies and precedent projects. Assignments will include digital and physical prototypes, and students will make extensive use of the GSD\’s Fabrication Lab, its CNC-devices and industrial robots, as well as the Harvard Ceramics Studio.