Digital Tools, Distributed Making, and Design

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* Thesis: DIGITAL TOOLS, DISTRIBUTED MAKING & DESIGN. by Diane Pfeiffer. Thesis submitted to the faculty of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for Master of Science in Architecture.



"Given the current social and business trends with digital fabrication and communication technologies, change in the manner and means of physical object production is clearly on the horizon. Recent peripheral projects show how access to digital fabrication and communication tools pull information for making toward the user, and enable the distribution of information and product outward. They also demonstrate vibrant user innovation in smaller scale projects for both personal and commercial applications. These current trends and peripheral projects are used to help locate where design and designers may find areas of growth in a potentially less-centralized, and more varied landscape of product development and production in the future."


Dianna Pfeiffer:

"After reviewing numerous projects that involve digital fabrication of the last few years, two principal aspects of their success became apparent. These are the access to tools, and the communication of information. Each of the projects highlighted in the prior sections revolve around both access and communication to a greater or lesser extent, and it can be said that it is only in the detail of organization of these aspects, that the projects truly differ.

Access and communication can also be conceived as variants of the traditional dimensions of capital, namely production and distribution. With one main difference - in these digital fabrication projects distribution is not necessarily of a finished physical product, but is rather the information for its production. This allows distribution to occur either before or after production. Consequently, production as seen in the previous sections, can occur through increasingly decentralized means, whether online service bureaus, local production facilities, or a network of like-minded participants. Since the product is not a fixed entity, but the data that defines it, it can also be modified and manipulated with relative ease. The result, I believe, is distributed making becoming ever more possible as the access to tools in turn pulls the information for making to itself.

Peripheral projects show experimentation with how individual and customized methods may work toward a larger system or holistic role of design. Current smaller projects show the variety of innovation just beginning to emerge online and in local communities in the form of local design and production shops such as Unto This Last and 100K Garages. These act along with the distributed niche or long-tail services enabled by digital communications that bring networked business to small producers on a global scale not unlike Nervous System and Grossman. This, in addition to the rise of grass-roots economics in the form of customized marketplaces similar to those provided by Shapeways, have much to offer peripheral producers in future incarnations of distributed making through their connection to niche markets. Modification of Software Tools Extrapolating from examples like Nervous System and Karsten Schmidt, the ability to individually configure software toward a desired output will likely be a continued mode of design investigation, as software is one of the primary tools used in design. Today, it is algorithms for modeling form that designers are configuring, which suggests that software manipulations in the future may extend much further into the process of design and the tools used for fabrication. Moreover, there are early examples of creative CAM software that show this. More importantly, however, it is the ease and the extent to which the designer can reach down in and truly manipulate the software as a medium that will affect the degree to which they will be able to create with it.

Craft Production and Cottage Industries

In their much discussed book, The Second Industrial Divide, Michael Piore and Charles Sabel argue that... craft production, the suppressed alternative to mass production... is once more showing itself to be a real possibility. Its return in more propitious circumstances could mean not just economic but social and political gains.

It could be said that on the scale of cottage industries, craft production and individual use, the digital tool is much more readily subverted to the needs and the desires of the individual than anything the traditional industries of mass-production are capable of producing. Where now in the early twenty first century, unlike the 1980s when Piore and Sabel wrote, the technical, if not the economic circumstances, are much more promising for a return of craft production. It is not so difficult to see the rapidly multiplying use of digital fabrication in small scale projects as the beginning of a shift away from the centralization of production, and instead toward the development of varied means of developing and producing material goods.

With digital fabrication tools, tooling requirements for differing products can be minimized, if not eliminated. Where mass-production is not the aim, but rather customized, design-build, or craft production is, then the ability for designers to produce context-specific physical objects is greatly enhanced with access to these tools. This points toward a return for some to craft-based design and making on a local scale, but one with a potentially global reach. This is not unlike UTL, that produces locally designed and fabricated furniture. It also means greater access for others too, where customized products are much closer, more easily understood and appropriately configured for each individual when access to the producer is made available.

Accessible Tools & Collaborative Work

Where designers and makers currently access digital fabrication tools is piecemeal and limited. To some extent, this is driving the development of homebrew CNC and solid freeform fabrication tools along with the growth of community groups and community workspaces that include digital tools. It is probable these will continue to grow in popularity until the tool cost comes down, and independent fabricators are better able to produce for, and with their local communities.

Access to digital tools, especially direct and handson access is a crucial aspect for designers, and others to realize its potential. When access to CNC tools is less focused on the bottom line, innovative projects often result. These frequently rely on negotiated relationships between manufacturers and designers, or community organizations and schools. On larger scales, they include projects such as the proliferation of Fab Labs and 100k Garages, which aim to bring individuals together with tools in an on-going fashion. While small-scale collaborations arise for specific projects like that between Karsten Schmidt and ThingLab UK.

Traditionally, this kind of individual collaboration between designer and fabricator are common. With a shift to digitalization for both specifying and fabricating, design seems to be naturally including physical production as well. If the example of desktop publishing suggests anything concrete about the production of objects, it is that digitalization offers greater control over physical production for designers. Thus the designer-asproducer will plausibly become more common as digital tools facilitate the making of objects, and designers are more readily able to physically produce their ideas. How skilled fabricators might be impacted by such a scenario, remains to be seen, but for now, it appears to favor greater collaboration between skilled fabrication trades and designers. Through the research undertaken for this paper, peripheral projects are apt to spin-off additional commercial projects and non-commercial projects in similar frequency. Making or designing at this level is thus self-propagating to a degree, potentially self-supporting, and as discussed above, often collaborative.

Distribution of Design as Media and Culture

The digitization of design places an emphasis on two-way communication for the distribution of design intent and the products of design. In this sense, digital design data is conceived as a kind of media, not unlike music, or video content capable of being variously packaged and modified as necessary. Current digital media use for other types of content indicate a preference for searchable databases. In the case of design, this takes the form of downloadable geometries for fabrication, and algorithms for creating design alternatives within a set field of constraints. Indeed, these are beginning to surface at sites such as Shapeways, and exhibition and conference blogs like Generator.x. In the future, digital design content would ideally take the form of readily accessible open-commons content created by the users, and where the organization and access to this data is one of many possible services that grow up and around it.

What can be done with design content, whether for product innovation, or as an easily accessed source of information for production and distribution are possible avenues for designers to explore. Ronen Kadushin’s Open Design project is an early example. It involves designed objects for 2D sheet fabrication with digital tools based on the open-source philosophy of promoting access to the product’s source materials.

His work, however, is largely self-contained. Even though the designs are freely available for download, the activity around them online is relatively flat. By providing an incentive to participation on the other hand - tapping into an already engaged group as Griffith did with kitesurfing, further energy could be spurred by the sharing. Kadushin’s existing Open Design site shares almost exclusively one-way and it is centered on Kadushin. If instead, it included an active area for uploads of similar designs, and user-varied designs also for download, the emphasis would be less on the designer, and more on the creation of objects and its innovation centered on the idea of creating designs for open distribution.

Modular Design

As of this writing, open-source design projects of physical objects are beginning to appear. In current practice, this is similar to the framework used in open-source software development, but for hardware. The methodology often relies on the creation of modular components that can be mixed and matched together as users require. These modules are developed as building blocks for more complex objects Though the projects described earlier only hint at the possibility of modular design, design critics such as Paola Antonelli and Werner Lippert have noted its likelihood as a future direction for professional design.

The product as starting point was yesterday. Tomorrow the consumer will be the focal point for enhancing value.

The emerging knowledge economy relies on digital self-determination in real time. The individual linking of what consumers want with the solutions offered by the databases, from music downloads all the way to personal medication, will shape the economy of the 21st century.

In future, both designers and their clients will have to dissociate themselves from the task of styling isolated products and adopt a holistic approach to their work.

A good example of this is Bug Labs, the New York-based company behind BUG, a modular opensource hardware development platform. They have designed and developed components of different electronic functions as freestanding elements with both physical and software joints that allow connection to other BUG hardware components.

Users purchase the low-cost open-source components and combine them to make their own programmable electronic devices like GPS triggered MP3 players, or motion-detecting recording devices.

As MoMA’s leading design curator, Paola Antonelli points out, Rapid Manufacturing Technology gives us amazing possibilities for ‘open-source design.’ In the future, designers will be able to give their clients a complete framework for creating their own products, serving as consultants regarding form and structure. This has happened in every medium from desktop publishing, music, and video, to fashion and user-generated web content. Really, three-dimensional products are the last area that this digital revolution can put into the hands of the public.

Within the design of open-source modular product systems, the more useful a component, the more likely it is to be absorbed into other products. The very nature of open-source, however, flies in the face of traditional corporate product design, where it has been in the commercial interest of the producer to discourage crossovers with other products for fear of losing market share. Yet in an environment of potentially user-modifiable products, proprietary may in fact turn out to be a hindrance to the growth of a producer’s market share." (

Areas of Growth for Digital Fabrication