Digital Enablement for Manufacturing

Automating Digital Workflows for Direct Direct Digital Manufacturing



Architectural design freedom achieved on high-end projects currently costs over $1,000/sq. Ft. Building materials have long been relegated to plane stock - flat rectangles. Customization is prohibitively expensive for most projects; and standard methods and materials cannot address the digital divide of what has been possible to design in computers for the last 20 years, yet unattainable to construct. New materials, digital workflows and fabrication technologies offer extraordinary efficiencies and opportunities to change this.

Today we turn a corner to witness and establish a building material system that packages up the collective novelties as affordable and standardized products to freely design with. DDM(Direct Digital Manufacturing) powered by robust DFM(Design for Manufacturing) methodologies can chart a path forward. DDM is the process of fabricating elements directly from a CAD file. There are many forms of DDM, including but not limited to 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC routing, multi-axis robotic processes and other machine tools that run off of digital tool paths. DFM(Design for Manufacturing) involves efficiently designing a complex part, assembly or system relative to material and tooling requirements. Here physical and digital technologies drive more accurate, flexible, responsive, and interconnected products. They also offer a journey out of ‘cookie-cutter’ building designs. When we combine DDM with DFM we can begin to create powerful digitized building systems that can advance design innovation via mass-customization and form driven design while also securing manufacturing accuracies and quality to ensure design intent. This paper will discuss the efficacy of 3D modeling relative to a building product that amalgamates innovative materials, digitzations and advanced fabrication technologies to produce unprecedented 3D building enclosures.


Photo of Melody Rees

Melody Rees

Director of Design

Branch Technology


Introduction and Background

The completion of a first-of-a-kind-project for TVFCU (Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union) to create fluid, formal and uniquely 3D articulating façade panels represents a roadmap to mass-customized building products and a market demand for such a novel product. The project and product offered a promise to close the digital divide in conceptual architecture of what was once impossible to construct or afford. It touted a potential for outstanding building performance metrics and harnessed new methods of direct digital manufacturing technologies like large-scale 3D printing and the use of robotics. While the project came with much success, the principles and methods were in their infancy with opportunity for improvement.

This paper identifies the lessons learned from the TVFCU project located in Chattanooga, TN and demonstrates those learnings on a second project that followed suit— The Monroe Parking Garage located in Huntsville, AL. This paper will specifically focus on problems and solutions related to the efficacy of 3D modeling for manufacturing. We concentrate on the development of a digital production workflow, chiefly computational operations and procedures imposed by software tools with the goal of automating highly accurate models. We discuss the challenges of applying the workflows on real-world projects with timelines and budgets all the while creating a scalable system capable of bringing fully tested, engineered, repeatable and lasting building products to market quickly and simultaneously.

TVFCU articulated façade panels
Monroe Parking Garage articulated façade panels

First, it is important to understand the process flow from design to fabrication and the needs of manufacturing. In the case of the articulated façade panels, the process begins with a single design surface input that is panelized into discrete panels per code compliant testing, manufacturing capabilities and architectural alignments. The panels are created as watertight volumes with which to crunch necessary components into. Templating is used to house standard details and geometric logics for 3D printing volumes, milling surfaces, embedded steel and ample quality control data points. Templates are instantiated across the many panels on a building as a way to produce highly stable, predictable, repeatable parts for manufacturing. This process is complex with many interrelated elements. Sub assemblies for each material process are then pulled into a path planning process where KRL(Kuka Robot Language) or other machine source files are produced. Path planning is the process of solving kinematically possible, collision-free paths for the robot to traverse in 3D space with a given mechanical tool. These tasks are a function of the overall shop ticket that is submitted to the shop floor for the production of any project panel. We call this geometrical component crunching ‘Part Generation’.

TVFCU design surface(left), TVFCU panelized volumes(right)

Identifying Challenges

The TVFCU project used Rhinoceros (McNeel, Version 6) and Grasshopper 3D (Rutten and McNeel, 2018) to complete the Part Generation process. Limitations were discovered on two fronts. The first issue

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The team sought to resolve the process shortcomings by changing software platforms. Multiple platforms were evaluated in search of one robust and scalable platform that enabled DFM(Design for Manufacturing). The

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Conclusion and Future Work

Evolving a robust digital production process was critical to the development of the mass-customized articulated façade panel product as executed on the Monroe Parking Garage project and its predecessor, TVFCU

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Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union Flagship Branch in Chattanooga, TN.

Client: Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union

Architect: River Street Architecture

Panel Design/Fabrication: Branch Technology

Rain Screen Carrier System: SFS - Nvelope

General Contractor: Construction Consultants, Inc.

Monroe Parking Garage in Huntsville, AL

Client: City of Huntsville

Architect: Fuqua Partners and Architects

Panel Design/Fabrication: Branch Technology

Structural Engineer: Larson Engineering

General Contractor: Turner Construction

Rights and Permissions

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