A cut above

Models beat a drawing hands down when it comes to discussing a concept, and there are easy ways to make them

There is something quite powerful about holding an object in your hands when discussing an idea. Two dimensional imagery is useful in discussing material and spatial ambience, but somehow an object makes the idea more tangible.

Choosing the method of creation is important to the design outcome as the objects we make derive their characteristics from a particular making process, which in turn influences the design. Nowadays we are spoilt for choice with a multitude of digitally controlled devices supplementing more traditional tools.

Computer controlled machines are allowing designers to explore ideas in physical form faster and more easily than ever, we can even make stuff while we sleep. Sadly the sophistication of Star Trek replicators is not quite here, but we are getting there: food, biomedical implants and human tissue have been printed, even super strong nano trusses the size of a match head.

I would definitely have prettier fingers had a digital cutting device existed when I went through uni. A friend uses the Silhouette Curio for some high-end model making tasks. The device is the size and cost of a desktop printer and contains a digitally controlled cutting blade that follows a vector path from Illustrator. It cuts almost any sheet model-making material less than 2mm thick and produces clean edges.

For thicker more durable sheet materials, a laser cutter is a great option. A cutting machine costs anywhere up from £6,500; the device is the size of a Saint Bernard and requires ventilation. The machine is amazingly versatile allowing scoring, cutting and engraving from vector drawings, and in the right hands model making magic is possible. A thorough knowledge of the material properties and corresponding laser power and speed is necessary to cut cleanly without burning the material or starting fires.

If lasers aren’t your thing, 3d printers might be, providing high levels of detail with .05mm accuracy for under £1,500. We have LulzBot and Ultimaker fused plastic filament printers in the office. They are primarily used for small hand sized massing and detail studies, and are often left running overnight. The detail in the print file needs to be adjusted to suit the final size of the print, with really thin objects thickened to prevent warping. An alternative to the plastic filament is the Form 2 SLA printer which solidifies resin using a laser. 

If you are looking to make quick form studies from a solid mass and are not Michelangelo, then for under £5,000 a Roland 3 axis milling machine may be a viable option. The machine use a subtractive cutting process to remove material following a digital tool path. The tool path is generated through software creating a series of 3d vector lines around your digital file with a cutting speed, depth and step size appropriate for the chosen material.  After a few passes the piece is at presentation quality.

As with any tool, understanding their quirks and limitations is essential to maximising design potential. 

Alan McLean is an architect at Bates Smart Architects in Melbourne