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Insight into Digital Fabrication: Rachel Vroman
Posted by 3DP4E

By Andrew Wheeler | 3DP4E

Rachel Vroman is a manager of the Digital Fabrication Lab at Harvard University. She received her Master of Architecture from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 2010. For the past 3 years, she’s been working as an instructor in architecture, and as a digital fabrication technology specialist at the GSD. After watching “Robokline” and “The Metal Sky Project”, on Harvard GSD’s youtube channel, I was curious to know how different printing processes with different machines affect the design solution for any given project. She was kind enough to answer my question, and agreed to an interview.

3DP4E: What are the origins of your interest in Digital Fabrication?

Rachel: Growing up, my hands were never idle. When not in school or doing homework, I spent much of my time drawing, painting, crafting, building things with blocks, or constructing minor earthworks and hydrologic systems in our backyard sandbox with the garden hose. In school I gravitated toward math and science and was excited when calculus and physics came together and described logically physical phenomena around me. For post-secondary school these interests lead me first toward engineering. However, upon encountering basic computer programming requirements in the first semester, I was quickly turned off. Sitting at a computer was something that I perceived as too sharp a departure from my creative interests. At that point I moved toward architecture as I had been lead to believe that it would allow me to engage with both math and art. Architecture did allow me to continue to be creative and apply logic through pencil and paper at the drafting board. However, that changed rather quickly and abruptly within the first year of my graduate studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and I wasn’t about to change my course of direction at that point.

It probably wasn’t until my third year of graduate school that I understood Digital Fabrication was something to be considered as separate from fabrication and something with which one might be interested specifically. I suppose that my exposure to computers growing up and my timing in entering post-secondary school was such that having digitally controlled equipment in fabrication facilities wasn’t a foreign concept, it was simply the way things were. In that way, digitally controlled tools were simply tools alongside all of the others, each having its place in the shop and there being applications where one is perhaps better suited than another. So when I became student technical assistant for the CNC router it was really just a job that needed to be filled and I was willing to learn what it took to do the job. It was a job that not too many other students around me were doing. With time I came to realize that there was a lot learn and at the time there weren’t many people to turn to for more answers. Just by clicking around within the software [MasterCAM] it was pretty obvious that we were only scratching the surface in terms of how we, as a school, we using the tool (software and equipment). Sadly, we were satisfied with relatively poor results. This was (and still is) frustrating to me as it wasn’t something that many of my peers or instructors seemed to notice or care to address.

One thing that architects and designers in the academic context seem to be good at is knowing a little bit about many different things. As a group on our own we probably didn’t have the ability to improve even if we had developed the ambition. I was fortunate enough to find one like-minded peer and together we spent long hours working between the computer and the machine, getting a better understanding of what had been neglected. Also fortunate for us, the right person was hired to oversee the woodshop at the same time that I was taking on more responsibility with oversight of the CNC router. With his support, depth of knowledge, and eagerness to share, we came to see more fully the real potential of the tool and knew that we could improve the way it was used for the benefit of the school and our peers, and create more informed physical artifacts that could do justice to the quality of design that the school values and is capable of producing.

This is something that I and my colleagues continue to try and promote to this day. It has been a challenge to bring this effort out of the shop environment and up into the classroom. The persistent challenge of bridging the gap between design education in the classroom and of making in the shop is probably what has fed my interest in Digital Fabrication. When it comes down to it, I’m really more interested in fabrication and making, in general, than in Digital Fabrication, specifically, and I don’t like to think of Digital Fabrication as something completely separate. So, any interest of mine in Digital Fabrication comes most out of necessity as design education here relies so heavily on the computer that making with the aid of a computer is a natural extension of design.

3DP4E: You have a chance to experiment with a wide variety of materials at Harvard. What goes into the process of selecting a material or combination of materials to use for a particular design solution?

Rachel: I actually don’t experiment myself so much, but act as the consult and technical support for students and faculty who do. Through their efforts I do get to engage with a rather wide range of materials because they, as a whole, bring a diverse set of interests and challenges to the shop.

For my own work, I’ve tended to work more from the bottom-up, choosing a process or material first and then exploring potential applications, rather than from the top-down. This probably has much to do with my particular position supporting an academic environment where learning and process are the primary focus, rather than if I were in a design or engineering practice where I might be handed a problem first and then asked to solve it. Additionally, I still have a lot to learn about materials and making in order to help others who do have design problems to solve, so it’s still productive for me to engage directly with a material or a particular process and see where those engagements lead, as directed by the material or process itself. This is not the way a designer would typically work with materials.

Design problems in and of themselves are so diverse that I don’t know that there is a single process that would work for them all. One project may be all about structural constraints within a particular geometric volume, another may be about creating shelter that can be erected in the field without the use of any tools, and another may simply be about communicating a particular aesthetic concept; each of these projects is going to have a different set of questions to answer and a different set of prototypes needed as a result. Oftentimes, the extent to which a particular individual actually wants to engage a material or process also has to be assessed. Some students just want the fastest way to get a model of their design idea and are completely satisfied with whatever method will result in them having something in the shortest amount of time with the least additional effort. Others really want to learn something through the process of making.

There’s going to be a big difference in the material and process selection for these two cases, as a result the final thing produced and the discussion between student and instructor can be significantly different. A significant amount of meaning and intent can be conveyed in how something is made and the materials chosen. In the context of the academic semester, time and money are also significant factors that students must consider in choosing the materials and processes they engage.

3DP4E: We saw the Metal Sky Project from 2011 and the RoboKline videos on Harvard GSD's youtube channel. These are really cool projects. How does using CAD software as a design tool vs a representational tool affect the overall quality of the design process?

Rachel: I wish that I could take more credit for the coolness behind these projects, but, in reality, I was at best a member of a larger team. In that way I’m pretty lucky as I get to work on many projects and so gain exposure to many interesting ideas. It can also be frustrating, however, as I’m not in the driver’s seat and don’t necessarily get to steer the projects in the directions that I think would be most interesting. I’m still trying to find a way to both support those around me (my job) and get the time and space to do my own work. Recently, that means working at home with the tools and materials that I can support there, textiles and fabrics and the geometric complexity of the human form (i.e. learning how to design and make clothes that fit well).

I’m not sure that fully I understand your question here, but if the distinction is between using software as a tool to produce representations versus actual things, then I’d respond as follows: When using CAD software to prepare the data necessary for making something, I think that one has to be much more careful and thoughtful from the outset. Every curve that is drawn has some implication down the line as it represents something very physical. When drafting an edge to something, you really need to be thinking about how that edge will come to be and of what it will be made. If the fabrication data is going to come directly from the computer model, then there should be a big difference in one’s mind when drafting an edge that will made by an endmill spinning at 20000 RPM and traveling along at 800 IPM versus one that is made by a course of modular bricks in running bond, or by a 5/8” seam of two pieces of silk organza cut along a bias. In software, even something as seemingly simple as the number of decimal places you include in your tolerance or the distance of the object from the origin can make a significant impact on the data that you are creating and ultimately sharing with others. Unlike representational models, when one models for fabrication, one has to consider that model as a document that will be shared: shared with other software programs that might then lead directly to machine code or shared with fabricators themselves. These other entities, whether software or fabricators, will then take that model and get data from it which you may or may not have intended. When modeling in the computer for fabrication, every curve and surface should be made with intention and forethought. This works against sketching in the computer as it too easily can lead to loosely\-formed ideas becoming ones with significant physical significance. But, it does work very well for solving large assembly problems such as entire buildings that push the typical limits of the construction industry in terms of geometry and precision. A number of design practices now specialize in developing custom software tools just for this application, working between architects and fabricators.

3DP4E: How important is it (or not) in your opinion for more secondary schools and universities to implement digital fabrication facilities and curricula?

Rachel: I think that it is important that making find more support in secondary schools and universities. This doesn’t necessarily have to include digital fabrication and I would actually caution institutions from jumping directly to digital fabrication if they don’t already have the facilities and curricula that supports making in the most basic sense. I think that we are currently giving too much credit and attention to digital fabrication. All of the knowledge and skill that we as humans have developed over time and have invested into the development of digital fabrication is being overlooked and taken for granted. Sure, there’s a lot that people can make with digital fabrication tools and its exciting to see them become so accessible, but there’s a lot that can be done without them too.

There is also a significant amount that one should come to understand about materiality and making before assuming that a machine plus a computer will magically make it all happen for you. I do think that digital fabrication is something that we should view as an extension of the traditional shop and is certainly something that should not be ignored. It should be adopted once an adequate level of mastery is achieved with tools that promote the user to gain a first-hand understanding of the material being worked. First and foremost, things should be made well. If they aren’t made well, then they aren’t worth being made, regardless of the type of tool that was used. We should take pride in things made well and we should instill this value in our youth.

We will not be able to exist with any quality of life if importance is placed on novelty or numbers alone. One of my fears is that digital fabrication, as it is currently promoted and implemented, has a great potential to contribute to the disposability of our material world and devalue all material processes. In order to utilize these tools in a culturally sustainable manner, I think that we first have to address how we value the things we make.

Rachel: Right now I see a large emphasis on making Digital Fabrication smaller and more affordable so as to get it into the homes of individuals. While this may have the potential to empower many to make on their own, I think that it has an equally strong potential to devalue our material world and the efforts of those who have spent their lifetime developing their craft and expertise. While there is a growing community on the internet that can share their own experiences and support each other, there is also a lot of bad information out there that people are too eager to share and promote.

Those who really know what they are doing aren’t necessarily taking the time to share it on the internet and I don’t think that we should necessarily expect them to. Instead, we should hope that they continue to grow and develop upon their knowledge. We do need a way to transfer this knowledge to others, but we have to realize that this might not communicate well across the internet and that even learning to make something well with digital fabrication tools takes time and effort. A better plan for the future should be to grow local community facilities that have a range of tools, including those controllable digitally, where individuals can come together, learn from each other and work together.

There is a real physical component to making, whether it is through a digitally-controlled medium or not, I think that we should respect that and provide spaces that allow us to come together in the physical world and engage with one another, the materials and the processes. I don’t think that one can participate in this in a meaningful way by way of a screen; it’s too easy to remain at a comfortable distance and not be immersed in the reality of it all. Black boxes that produce things with clicks of a button should be avoided as they don’t really help us to understand the physical world within which we exist.

3DP4E: Can you talk about a favorite learning experience you've had while being involved in Digital Fabrication?

Rachel: My favorite learning experiences have been those where either myself or someone I’m working with realizes that there is more to learn about a particular process or material. I smile inside when students realize how much time and effort they’d have to put into something in order to get out what they are looking for. Many times this turns them away, but it is exciting when someone then sees the potential and understand that it means that they could go even further than they had originally thought possible. I hope that it also helps them to realize the value of things done well and that someone has invested a lot of time and energy into developing the skill to be able to do those things efficiently.

Another favorite experience has been where we excite or spark the interest of others who are either surprised that we were able to pull something off or are shown a familiar material in a new way, revealing something to them that they had taken for granted. Incredibly skilled artists working at the Harvard Ceramics Studio last fall who saw the work our students were doing with materials which they were very familiar with (and new to our students) were excited as they saw new potential in the use of the digitally controlled equipment for the work that they themselves were doing. Learning of this through their experience was rewarding for me to hear. Similarly, when volunteering at the FabLab at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts I was able to meet people with incredible skill in their own craft and talk to them about Digital Fabrication and what they do and value about their own processes and work. I think that the most exciting potential for Digital Fabrication comes from these types of engagements, where these two skill sets can come together and be open and honest with each other in exploring what might be possible.

3DP4E: What advice would you give to kids and teenagers who are interested in 3D printing and digital fabrication?

Rachel: I’d advise anyone interested in anything to simply be active: to create, make, and share with others, and to then respond to all of that with subsequent creations. Growing up I participated in art competitions in my hometown, at the county fair, the state fair, and in other arts organizations. I was also fortunate enough to be able to go to local classes and even to work as an assistant to my teacher, helping her with others. I learned so much by looking at the work of others and by putting my work out there and being open to feedback from those with more experience. It is healthy to participate in these sorts of communities, where everyone is there for each other’s mutual benefit.

If our youth can find communities similar to those for their own interests, then they should be encouraged to participate in them in whatever way they can. As a society we should find a way to both create and support those communities. Community education programs, after-school programs, and summer education programs can all be great opportunities. If a particular class on a topic isn’t being offered, it doesn’t hurt to contact those organizing the program to try and get something started. Being involved in these programs as either students or instructors would be a good experience for kids and teenagers, sharing their interests and acquired knowledge with others will strengthen the community’s growth.

3DP4E: When using a specific material, such as ceramics, what are a few of the ways you test a digital prototype before creating the physical prototype?

Rachel: Although there are a number of simulation environments we use and some analytical tools available that can assess material and structural performance, I’ve not found any of these to be significantly valuable on their own. There is really no way to work entirely digitally when you know that ultimately you are tending toward a physical outcome. This is especially true of materials that have not been engineered to perform in a predictable manner for the process being implemented. Prototypes are valuable only if they are well designed to answer particular questions.

A digital prototype should be made to answer questions that can adequately be assessed digitally. Oftentimes the only way to answer particular questions is to make the physical prototype (and the ten others that then follow). A digital prototype doesn’t necessarily come before a physical one, the two should be used together to answer their own questions as related to the design problem. I’ve found that many students have come to rely on the computer as a tool that can answer all of their questions and are not necessarily comfortable simply making.

These students end up spending too much time on the computer hoping that it will provide them answers that should really only be investigated in the shop by putting materials together. The computer often promises precision and predictability that in reality the material world does not offer, especially to those who haven’t spent an adequate amount of time engaging with it.

3DP4E: What is a material, machine or software that you haven't had a chance to use in a design solution, but would like to sometime in the future?

Rachel: There are so many projects floating around in my head, most focused on a particular material, process, or finished object rather than using any one machine or piece of software. One project that I’d really like to have in my future is a wood strip solo canoe, but there are many others that will have to come first in order to make that a feasible project.

* Photography by Justin Lavallee


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