Machine collaborates on your design as you make it
Earlier this summer Design Hub Limburg mounted “The Machine,” an exhibition that anticipates what the Netherlands-based design collective is calling the designers’ industrial revolution, a movement that sees more and more designers developing and building machines specially suited to their particular needs, like the Computer Augmented Craft project (CAC) by German designer Christian Fiebig. He was commissioned by Design Hub Limburg to create an interactive machine with a digital interface that makes suggestions to the designer during the fabrication process. Using custom-made sensors, the computer tracks the making process and instantly generates formal possibilities based on the designer’s chosen parameters, bridging hi-tech with traditional craftsmanship.
Fiebig enlisted the help of product and interaction designer David Menting and his company, Nut & Bolt, to devise a system of sensors specifically for spot welding strips of metal. First, Menting used an off-the-shelf CNY70 reflective infrared sensor to detect the position of the metal strips and created an adapted pair of digital calipers to measure the length. A custom-made circular infrared sensor was then created to measure the angle at which two different strips meet. The values read by the sensors are registered by an Arduino, a microcontroller chip that enables a computer to communicate input and output components, in this case the sensors. The Arduino checks whether the infrared sensor can detect the light from a ring of LEDs on the workstation at a rate of approximately a thousand times per second. If not, it knows the light is being blocked by a strip of metal, which it measures the length and angle of, and then sends that information to the computer.
From there Martin Schneider used Processing, an open source programming language, to create the software that allows the computer to interpret the information it receives from the sensors, compare it to the project’s pre-established parameters and make suggestions to the designer while he or she is making the product. Fiebig was using metal strips to create a bowl with a geometrical, open basketweave pattern as a study for a larger furniture product. His specified parameters were metal strips that could only be cut in lengths from five to 15 centimeters and could only be joined in low-profile connections. During each step in the process Fiebig was able to glance up at the display screen, which showed the current stage of the project, and read the computer’s feedback on how much he could stray from the parameters by changing an angle or length of metal without affecting the integrity of the product, something Schneider calls this the “degree of freedom.”
“If the user aligns the cutter or the strip in a way that is not consistent with the model, it is immediately evident from the display if either length or angle of the current segment are out of range,” Schneider said. But the machine doesn’t physically enforce these limits–it can’t, in fact–and it’s up to the designer to take its advice or not, creating a true collaboration between man and machine. “The computer calculates an immediate recommendation based on the parameters of the software, how the result would look if this or that decision was made instead,” said Fiebig. He went onto describe the process of making a product with a computerized studio partner as “a feedback spiral that continues an evolving dialogue between craftsman and computer.”
Ultimately, Fiebig hopes to expand the scale of the project from one tabletop workstation to multiple machines over an entire studio, and from the parametric process to open ended feedback so that several designers could work on various projects in the same space, moving from machine to machine and collaborating with one another as well as with the computers. For those who want to take a crack at this set-up themselves, Schneider released the various components of his program as open source software you can download for free, a generous offer given the amount of work involved, but consistent with the greater collaborative process.
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