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Why MSP is Leading the New DigiFab (Third Industrial) Revolution

The Centennial Chromagraph, fabricated in the DigiFab Lab to celebrate the U of M School of Architecture's history

Chair fabricated by Christy Oates, part of the MCAD show

Joshua Harker's "Crania Anatomica Filigre," part of the MCAD show

The Hack Factory at the Minne-Faire

Imagine: A plywood-based installation with an acrylic surface that changes form—but only in the mind’s eye. A dynamic sculpture comprised of “telepresent water” that pulses and moves in harmony with data sent from a buoy in the central Pacific Ocean. A “growth modeling system” that faithfully records the contours of a living onion plant and fabricates an updated physical replica every 24 hours.
These are just a few of the concepts on display during “Beyond the Buzz: New Forms, Realities, and Environments in Digital Fabrication,” an exhibition at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design on view through March 1. The show may be MSP’s largest-ever art exhibition devoted to digitally fabricated art. Moreover, “Beyond the Buzz” offers a beautiful, mind-bending glimpse into the tremendous potential of digital fabrication, a high-tech manufacturing process that MSP-based innovators and creatives are using to reinvent the region's — and the planet's — relationship with the physical world.
Thanks in part to the presence of Eden Prairie-based Stratasys, the country’s largest manufacturer of digital manufacturing and prototyping equipment, and education programs in several colleges and universities throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, MSP is widely regarded as a national leader in digital fabrication. Compelling stories about digital fabrication are also being created by local artists exhibiting their mind-bending work at MCAD; the independent makers and craftspeople toiling in Northeast Minneapolis garages and Creative Enterprise Zone lofts in St. Paul; and the designers developing new applications for the technology at the University of Minnesota.
Collectively, MSP’s digital fabricators are quite literally building the future, one pixel at a time.
Digital fabrication: what it is and how it’s done
Digital fabrication is a manufacturing process that translates designs made with computer-modeling software into physical forms, using materials like wood, metal and high-tech plastic resins. Finished forms can be simple models or replicas, practical items like furniture and wall panels, complex machines like firearms and cars, even biological artifacts like hearts and livers — though the technology for fabricating functional human organs on a large scale is still years away.
Digital fabrication’s forms are wonderfully diverse, and the technology’s potential is readily apparent. But how does one actually digitally fabricate?
Though digital fabrication workspaces vary by budget and objective, they often include some core components: modeling software, typically a computer-aided design (CAD) program capable of creating 2D vectors and 3D models; a computer powerful enough to support the modeling program; a CNC (computer numerical control) router or mill, a fabrication device that cuts and shapes raw materials based on CAD inputs; a laser cutter, which uses a laser as its cutting tool; and a 3D printer, which uses thin layers of resin, polymer or other material to build objects from CAD inputs.
The 3D printing process is also known as additive manufacturing because it involves adding successive layers to create an object that didn’t previously exist. CNC routers and laser cutters, by contrast, aid subtractive manufacturing — they remove layers and bits of already-coherent material to create a more refined form.
Independent makers and craftspeople may need just a single CNC router or laser cutter and a compatible software program to make installations, furniture and other finished products. Corporate or university-based digital fabrication labs typically have several machines working separately or in tandem to produce larger, often modular items.
Make what you want, when you want
Greg Flanagan, principal at Northeast Minneapolis’s Tree on a Hill Workshop, is living proof of small-scale digital fabrication’s economic and practical potential.
With CAD software, a CNC router and some well-worn tools, Flanagan crafts modern-looking wood furniture and wall fixtures, brass carvings, signage and custom installations. He also does contract work for designers and artists around the region, particularly prop and set design companies like mnfx and Crew Scenic.
“They’re using the robot in my garage to save time and money,” and to avoid having to construct finished products by themselves, he says. “Once they send me an [Adobe Illustrator file of what they want to build], I’m good to go.”
If Flanagan’s digitally fabricated furnishings are undeniably pragmatic, other innovators at the U’s College of Design live at the intersection of the conceptual and the practical, seeking out new ways to push the envelope of what’s possible at that intersection.
Marc Swackhamer, head of the School of Architecture (ensconced in the College of Design at the U of M) is busily pushing the boundaries of digital fabrication. Though he and his students use the College of Design’s Digital Fabrication (DigiFab) Lab for academic work, Swackhamer and a colleague also have a side business: HouMinn Practice, pronounced “human.”
HouMinn is a “research-oriented design practice” that experiments with prefabricated construction materials and fabrication techniques, says Swackhamer. He is particularly interested in “tool hacking,” the practice of repurposing existing programs and tools in unexpected ways “to achieve more with them than you could before,” he explains.
An example: Dynamic molds, which change form to precisely fit the desired shape of a finished object. HouMinn’s dynamic molds came in handy during a recent renovation of the School of Architecture’s office. The office wanted to install 80 sound-dampening wall panels, all with minute shape variations. Producing and installing the panels with 80 unique molds would have cost about $800,000, according to Swackhamer, a prohibitive expense.
Instead, the team used a single dynamic mold to fabricate all 80 panels at a total cost of about $10,000 — and achieve an effect that would have been unattainable without digital fabrication technology. “With the [digital fabrication] tools at our disposal,” says Swackhamer, “you can achieve the same efficiencies and effects in many other applications.”
According to Tom Fisher, former dean of the College of Design, digital fabrication is poised to fundamentally alter every facet of architecture, from initial design to construction. Recently, he says, designers working on an emergency room expansion at Fairview Health’s Southdale Hospital used the DigiFab Lab to “pre-vision” their design, donning virtual reality goggles and walking through a scale mockup of the space.
“They were pointing and commenting, like ‘There needs to be a wall here, not there,’” recalls Fisher.
In another case, engineers building out a dormitory used the DigiFab Lab to proof their final design immediately prior to construction. They ended up catching a series of errors that would have cost $1 million to fix after build-out, according to Fisher.
For now, the DigiFab Lab is mostly a design aid for bigger projects like these. But 3D-printed buildings made in MSP aren’t far off, says Fisher. WinSun Decoration Design Engineering, a Chinese firm, recently constructed a five-story, totally digitally fabricated building at China's Suzhou Industrial Park.
The third industrial revolution
“The last decade or so has seen a tremendous decentralization of manufacturing,” Fisher continues. “You can make things anywhere now, and with fewer resources.”
“We’re really living through a third industrial revolution,” he adds, “that’s disrupting the beneficiaries of the second industrial revolution — the big manufacturers that rely on the outdated assembly line model.” Fisher notes that Google is actively working on mass-producing a 3D-printed car, potentially spelling trouble for the auto manufacturers that epitomize assembly-line manufacturing.
“There’s an advantage in decentralized production,” says Fisher. “It’s empowering: More people and entities than ever before have access to powerful tools.” Take Tree on a Hill: Even a decade ago, Flanagan wouldn’t have had the resources to profitably pump out set pieces and custom furniture for far-flung clients.
But as new technologies empower ordinary people in previously unimaginable ways, Fisher reckons, educators and makers on the forefront of these changes must broaden the public’s knowledge base and develop new ways of thinking about design, manufacturing and the built environment.
Swackhamer concurs: “[Digital fabrication] is not just a technical ability. It’s digital literacy: a whole way of thinking and working.”
MSP's leadership
The “third industrial revolution” is happening everywhere, of course. But in MSP, much of the groundwork is being laid at the College of Design’s DigiFab Lab, where undergrad and graduate students reserve time and machines for class or personal projects.
According to Swackhamer, the DigiFab Lab must drive innovation by familiarizing students with the basic tools of digital fabrication — and then encourage learners to find new uses for them. “[Architecture and design] students first and foremost need an intimate understanding of making,” he explains, “but that must be paired with an interrogative sensibility that leads them to question and find new uses [for digital fabrication technology].”
Thanks in part to an arrangement with Stratasys, the DigiFab Lab has grown rapidly. At last count, it boasted six laser cutters, at least three 3D printers and one CNC router.
But the decreasing cost of equipment and expanding ranks of makers familiar with digital fabrication mean that knowledge can be shared by people and organizations without university-sized budgets: high-school shop departments, member-run maker spaces, even nonprofit after-school programs. At Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, for instance, the “MIT-certified Fab Lab” has four 3D printers.
And Leonardo’s Basement, a teaching nonprofit with an outpost in Minneapolis and St. Paul, caters to even younger kids. Classes teach a variety of competencies, including digital design and fabrication skills, to elementary and secondary school students. Flanagan, of Tree on a Hill, is shop instructor there, manning a laser cutter and 3D printer (donated by Stratasys) during “build what you want” sessions.
“The kids love experimenting with the machines and really pushing the boundaries of what they can make,” says Flanagan. “Leonardo’s Basement is a great way to get kids used to working with these technologies at a young age.” And the learning curve isn’t as intimidating as it might seem. “Lots of people, especially young people, are actually more comfortable working off a digital file as opposed to making something from scratch,” he says.
In the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, the mission of Twin Cities Maker (TCM) is even more ambitious: to unleash digital fabrication’s creative and practical potential for all, not just young creatives. TCM runs the Hack Factory, a maker space whose members (monthly dues start at $55) utilize on-site CNC routers, cutters and other equipment to flesh out their own designs. Anyone can join, even newbies.
TCM also hosts regular classes on basic aspects of digital fabrication, like operating a laser cutter and working with glass. An open house every Wednesday night welcomes non-members interested in digital fabrication. And TCM’s annual Minne-Faire maker festival, hosted at the Hack Factory, provides local makers and artists with an opportunity to display their work, and demystifies additive and subtractive manufacturing for a curious public.
Taken together, these MSP resources provide invaluable support for digital fabricators of every age and demographic, permanently reordering the public’s relationship with the manufacturing process — and minting new innovators who’ll shape the world for decades to come.
Fabricating a World’s Fair in Minnesota
MSP’s biggest digital fabrication achievement may yet lie ahead.
The Minnesota World’s Fair Committee is putting together a plan to host a three-month expo in MSP in summer 2023. A formal proposal will be unveiled later this year. A final decision from the World’s Fair governing body is expected in mid-2016.
Though the fair’s planners settled on a broad “health and wellness” theme, Minnesota World’s Fair Committee President & CEO (and former Minnesota Secretary of State) Mark Ritchie expects much of the fair’s built environment to be constructed using 3D-printed components.
The additive manufacturing process facilitates efficient design solutions, says Ritchie. For instance, his team is looking into slashing the fair’s cooling costs and overall carbon footprint by fabricating interior passages that mimic heat-dispersing termite tunnels. “We’re emphasizing sustainability in every aspect of the planning, design and construction processes,” he says.
Depending on how bio-fabrication technology progresses, digital fabrication could play an even more explicit role in the Minnesota World’s Fair’s healthy theme. By the early 2020s, 3D-printed organs and tissues will be closer to reality. MSP-based medical device companies like Medtronic and St. Jude’s, or startups that don’t yet exist, could well be involved in their production — raising the possibility of a high-profile World’s Fair exhibit devoted to Minnesota-made body parts.
Regardless of the exact role digital fabrication plays in the Minnesota World’s Fair — and, Ritchie cautions, a lot can change in eight years — it clearly supports the fair’s broader mission: to make a definitive statement about MSP’s place in the world.
“Hosting a World’s Fair is a nearly unparalleled opportunity to raise our profile, and to attract and retain talent here,” says Ritchie. “It’s necessary to change how the world views [MSP and Minnesota] and position the region as a truly global center for innovation.”

Brian Martucci is The Line's Innovation and Jobs Editor.
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