CAM Building Blocks for Student Architects

Learning about mass customization of fabrication materials at Carnegie Mellon University’s Digital Fabrication Laboratory.

“Our students are not required to use Mastercam in their projects. However, when they see how seamlessly it integrates with their design software and project workflows, it’s the one they almost always choose.”

Jeremy Ficca, Director, Digital Fabrication Laboratory, School of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon University

Architectural engineering and the building trades have lagged behind industries such as aerospace and medical device manufacturing in automating the transformation of computer-resident models into physical objects. Change is in the wind, however, and many notable universities are amending their architectural courses to provide laboratories that give graduate students access to advanced computer integrated architectural design and component fabrication technologies.

Carnegie Mellon University is taking this trend one step further by making the experience available to all of the students enrolled in its 5-year professional BAA architectural degree program as well as those enrolled in MA and PhD studies. At CMU’s dFAB (digital Fabrication Laboratory) students are exposed to a wide range of computer aided manufacturing tools so that they can be familiar with them and discover how they might be used to enhance their own investigations and ultimately improve the accuracy, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of their work as students and ultimately during their careers.

Jeremy Ficca Director of CMU’s dFAB said, “What works best is when students recognize the capabilities the lab puts at their disposal and they decide to use them, not for required courses, but for their own projects. One of the early and most startlingly unique and beautiful creations to emerge from the lab’s robotic manufacturing capabilities came about when students took on the task of making a free-standing wall from unique interlocking hexagonal building blocks of their own design. The project was the culminating activity of a new advanced architectural design course taught by Associate Professor Ficca.

During the initial weeks of the course, students received training in Mastercam X5 and basic milling, and then progressed to milling using RobotMaster and the lab’s 6-axis robot. Midway through the course, students attended a symposium– digital tectonics: robotic fabrication– during which a number of speakers gave presentations of how they used robotic fabrication in their own architectural and educational practices.

With the symposium as inspiration, the students then began researching, generating ideas, and testing concepts for what would eventually become the “Pinch Wall.” Months later the course ended but the wall was unfinished. The project was actually too ambitious to be completed within the confines of a single course. However, the students persevered on their own, generating more than 300 computer files and spending long hours of mixing, pouring and breaking plaster molds to manufacture more than 150 blocks and completing the wall. It is now prominently displayed at CMU’s College of Fine Arts.

The project served as a powerful example of what digital tools and software can create, given the time and resources. Students utilized Rhino 3-D design software, Grasshopper generative design algorithm, Mastercam® CAM software, RobotMaster robotics plug-in for Mastercam and an ABB 4400 robotic milling cell to design and fabricate the creation in one seamless process.

Ficca explained that while most buildings are singular specific constructions, many facets of their composition are assembled with universal components. An architect’s ability to deviate from the commonly available is often precluded due to issues of time and cost. Mass customization, the application of digital fabrication and design systems to the manufacture of unique materials, can go a long way toward ameliorating these issues giving the architect greater design flexibility while still maintaining tight control over quality and costs.

Pinch Wall Student Project: More images can be seen at:

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