Rapid visions

Are designers ready to fully exploit the potential of automated digital manufacturing techniques? Anna Richardson talks to those who are embracing the possibilities they offer

Swapping the workbench for the computer screen is not every designer’s idea of a good move. Rapid prototyping removes the designer from the physical design process, said Jonathan Ive, and many echo this sentiment.

But design consultancies such as Freedom of Creation and MGX have long harnessed digital manufacturing techniques and extolled their creative virtues. MGX’s latest collection, E-volution, once again merges design, art, nature and technology, using techniques such as selective laser sintering to produce coffee tables, vases and chairs.

Industry has used rapid manufacturing – variously referred to as digital fabrication, digital manufacturing or additive manufacturing
– for decades for cost-cutting and speed. Professor Richard Hague, head of the Rapid Manufacturing Research Group at Loughborough University, which has explored the technologies for more than 15 years, is researching the use of design tools to get the most out of additive manufacturing machines.

‘These [additive manufacturing] systems, certainly the powderbased ones, can make much more complicated parts than you can design in conventional computer-aided design systems, so there’s a real requirement to get better design tools,’ explains Hague. ‘Additive manufacturing can make pretty much any shape. There’s not much cost penalty in making much more complex parts – the difficulty is designing these parts.’

Where Hague is primarily concerned with engineering design, designer Tavs Jørgensen researches the use of digital manufacturing technologies in creative design processes at University College Falmouth’s research centre Autonomatic. The centre’s aim is to combine the autonomous approach of the designermaker with the flexible production capabilities of automated digital manufacturing, to ‘humanise’ the technology and establish new models of creative practice.

‘The underlying concept is that you can be an independent designer and digital tools can facilitate that,’ says Jørgensen. The centre has a variety of digital manufacturing tools, and it is important to gain hands-on experience, he adds. ‘People tend to view the process as just flicking a switch, but you have to have an in-depth knowledge of the machine to use this technology well,’ he says. ‘It’s important to physically make [the designs], to understand how the products are made, so that we can use the digital tools in a more meaningful way.’

Jørgensen is currently exploring digitally capturing gestures and hand movements to create physical pieces. Just as a handthrown pottery piece bears its creator’s marks, his work shows a human element through motion capture, he says.

Another pioneer of the aesthetic possibilities of RM is Lionel T Dean of Future Factories, who started experimenting with it in 2002. What started as a blue skies project on design for digital manufacture developed into his full-time occupation.

His work includes Holy Ghost, which fits Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost chair with an alternate back, and a collection of chandeliers inspired by microscope photography of pollen spores, Pallavi. He has recently completed Icon, a collection of 100 individualised jewellery pendants in titanium. ‘I really enjoy the possibilities,’ says Dean. ‘I used to do hand-modelling, and on a sunny day I would sit outside at the workbench rather than being inside, but the results make RM worthwhile.’

Much has been made of RM’s possibilities of customisation – changing design to meet a customer’s specifications – but Dean is particularly keen on individualisation, which involves varying the design to provide a new product. The aesthetic possibilities are endless, he says. ‘Previously, everything would be decided as design for manufacture, but even though each RM process has its own rules, you more or less have complete freedom.’

Using RM technologies doesn’t mean relinquishing design autonomy, stresses Dean. ‘It’s just a tool, it doesn’t design anything for you,’ he explains.

‘Even if I use an algorithm for generative designs, it still needs to be choreographed by the designer.’ With better materials, better finishes, more flexibility and a gradual lowering in cost, the opportunities are growing, but so is the onus on the designer. ‘You have the opportunity to do more, but you’re expected to do more too,’ says Dean.

‘The difficulty comes in people’s imagination,’ adds Hague. ‘We’ve been drumming into people to design for manufacture for years, and now we’re saying you can have [any shape] you want. It’s a very different approach.’

There are some technical limitations, a lack of range of materials and problems with repeatability in manufacturing, but there are unlimited possibilities, says Hague. ‘Designers need to unlock their minds. They need to think about what exactly they want their product to do and design for that – and assume that it’s possible. Broadly, it is.’

5 The Russula light from MGX’s E-volution collection, designed by Arik Levy

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