Spherical beauty: "Attracted to Light" by Geoffrey Mann traces a moth's flight around a light source, digitized with a 3D scanner - and made physical through rapid prototyping. Part of the Digitalability exhibition of Berlin's Designmai. Photo by Sylvain Deleu.


Digitalability is this year’s main theme of the annual Designmai exhibition and conference in Berlin, starting from May 12th until May 20th. Digital ability – what does this actually mean, this portmanteau of digital and ability that rolls a bit heavy on the tongue? Easy, Digitalability curator Atilano González-Pérez will explain the three-dimensional convergence of designers and technology for PingMag.

Written by Verena

“Digitalability” lettering in the Designmai cataolgue: elettriche typeface by Alessio Leonardi.


Visualising objects, like furniture or houses in 3D with the help of CAD software was just the beginning: high-end technologies, originally from aircraft construction, are sneaking slowly but steadily into the realm of design. Two techniques have become prominent in recent years, namely rapid prototyping and laser sintering: with given coordinates, plastic powder gets coated to determined shapes – all in one precise piece thanks to the laser.

Now, Atilano, what is Digitalability – the digital possibilities of a designer or a designer’s skills getting digitized?

That is the question, indeed: is it the designer’s knowledge of technology or is it what technology enables? In any way, we try to show different aspects of the issue. For example, for most of today’s designers it is quite common to work with CAD software. And lso it is a generation matter: most of the designers using laser sintering today are around 30 years old or in their 30s.

Simply one quite round chair: “Veryround” by Louise Campbell. Materials: a 2mm steel sheet frame cut by 3D laser consisting of 160 circles, and focusing as much on shadowplay as on construction. It was designed by cutting small paper models by hand, and the intention was for the result to look as fragile as the original models. Photo by Marino Ramazzotti.

What does the Digitalability exhibition show exactly, apart from sintered objects?

The Designmai exhibition is about the interaction or the influences of digital technology on design in the recent years. Though nowadays you hardly find anything not designed on a computer, we present special objects and have around 60 exhibits structured in three categories: the first category deals with creation where we present the digital tools for designing, followed by production for digital manufacturing techniques, and communication that deals with the integration of digital technology in designed products.

Catalogue cover of the “Digitalability” exhibition in Berlin from May 12th until May 20th.

Let’s get to the creation part: tools that go a bit further than just CAD software?

For example, we have two interesting font programs. One is called genoTyp from Michael Schmitz for crossbreeding typefaces. Similar to genomes, the software scans a font for characteristics and interbreeds it with a second font to generate a new, third one. We have another software that is able to reproduce naturalistic elements. Finally, there is one program you can feed certain parameters and the specifics to be designed, let’s say a door. It then generates several proposals for the designer to react.

Stereolithography and selective laser sintering: “Quin.mgx” by Bathsheba Grossmann for Materialise. “This is all about tetrahedron (four-sided) and progressing through the five Platonic solids to the last and most mystical of them, the dodecahedron (twelve-sided). In the first four shapes Plato saw the elements that make up the material world, but in this fifth he saw the nature and wholeness of the entire universe, the spiritual quintessence. This light-sculpture is a household embodiment of that unity: the Quintrino,” the manufacturers say. Got it? Photo by Materialise.mgx.

However, we don’t see all of the developments in a positive way. That is why we will discuss this in our associated conference and deal with questions like: who is designing now? what does that mean in terms of authorship?

I was just about to ask that… But the process of creation and the final decision making still lie in the hands of the designer…

True. But, and that leads us to our second category of instant production of generated forms: sure, the designer is the decision maker – but his task changes. For example, look at the Nike ID with the customers selecting shoe parts. Here, the designer doesn’t create anymore the shoe – but the possibility of it.

“Coryza” by Marcel Wanders. Part of the “Airborn Snotty Vases”, Atilano explains: “The object is a physical manifestation of a 3D scan of a nose’s microscopic sneezing excretions. The data of the scanned drop was sent to a 3D printer through rapid prototyping.” Photo by Maarten van Houten.

Meaning, the model of customisation increases… But still the user can only choose between different colours or certain modules. The rest of the shoe stays unaltered…

Again, this leads us to the instant production: we have a machine for stereolithography at the exhibition that will generate plastic objects every day.

That reminds me of the sketch furniture of Swedish trio Front we covered earlier

Indeed. We have them in our exhibition, too, with a video.

“AI Stool” by Assa Ashuach. The AI stool is the first to be designed using a combination of 3D tools and artificial intelligence. Produced by laser sintering the chair consists of a cosmetic skin and intelligent soft and hard structures. Like the biological structure and mechanism of bone, the artificial intelligence software knows where to create sufficient support,” says the company. Still by Assa Ashuach Studio.

I find the whole development of customised products through rapid prototyping quite amazing. In some time everybody might get his unique sculpture, chair or table for the living-room at home?

I guess, as the technology is so expensive we are not that far yet. Right now we experience a trend where the manufacturers of these special machines focus on a new market by trying to make them affordable. However, the material is still quite expensive. For example, the Sinterchair made through laser sintering technology by Berlin-based Vogt+Weizenegger four years ago still costs several thousands of EUR. But the longer this technology is in use, the sooner it might reach the ultimate consumer. For example, look at the Belgian manufacturer Materialise. They are one of the biggest service providers for rapid prototyping and already produce entire product lines. [see Materialise's lamp pictured above]

Detail of Assa Ashuach’s “AI Stool”.

However, the usage of Materialise’s hard plastic objects is still limited. This technology stems from aircraft construction, right?

…and from automotive manufacturing. These sintering machines can originate metal as well, predicated on the certain powder that is used. Once again, the sinter machine casts the plastic or the metal powder to objects.

Sounds technical. To what extent is the designer turning into a technician?

The point is, he or she must be able to use a CAD software. This lifts design to a new level: you don’t have to care anymore about constructional factors as the objects are made out of one piece. A simple example would be a screwdriver with a thread: you can print one out on a 3D laser printer – and it would work trouble-free. That is because as it prints, it leaves a kind of supporting pulp where no object is actually printed. After the process this is eluted. Another example is the ball in the ball in the ball… You couldn’t possibly manufacture that without cutting the balls in halves before and weld them together one after the other afterwards.

Close-up of the “AI Stool”: magnificent textures…

What is the technology behind the chair by Assa Ashuach Studio then?

The AI Stool stands for Artificial Intelligence and is laser sintered as well. Assa collaborates with a programer that wrote a software you only have to feed the parameters and the rest is done automatically. Like for example, Assa creates a shape and determines the precondition of a certain spot on the stool having the load capacity of 120 kilos. The software generates the structure that is suitable for that, a quite delicate structure as such. The next step for Assa would be influencing the pattern of the structure itself.

This is an old issue, but how could this software deal better with aesthetics?

I guess, for example with Assa’s AI Stool, there is still a lot of chance in it of how the structure turns out. Apart from letting the computer handle several scenarios, we have Marcel Wanders’ Airborn Snotty Vases line in the exhibition: the object is a physical manifestation of a 3D scan of a nose’s microscopic sneezing excretions. The data of the scanned drop was sent to a 3D printer through rapid prototyping. Thus, technology serves to visualise things that the designer couldn’t perceive otherwise. Similar is Geoffrey Mann’s Attracted To Light. This is a lampshade whose shape traces a moth’s flight around the light source, gone over by a program.

Comfy or not? Stereolithography furniture “C1 Chair, Solid Collection” by Patrick Jouin. A process also known as 3D layering or 3D printing, which allows the creation of solid, plastic, three-dimensional objects from CAD drawings. Photo by Thomas Duval.

Finally, any future perspectives for our digital abilities?

I assume that at some point all these beautiful examples and experiments we have on display won’t be relevant anymore. As technology progresses, there might be the possibility that quite banal objects come out of that. Maybe it would turn out as the folks at MIT dreamt of everybody having his own 3D printer at home: people wouldn’t buy a mug over the internet but only the software of a mug and let it print out after choosing the colour and size. They call that personal fabrication.
[More about that and an interesting talk of MIT's Neil Gershenfeld at the Edge.org.]

Sounds like one of that old Cyberpunk dreams… and later with William Gibson’s 3D printer in his novel All Tomorrow’s Parties… Thank you so much, Atilano, for giving us an outlook of design crossed with technology! If you happen to be in Berlin, walk by the exhibition as part of the Designmai in Mitte from tomorrow, May 12th until May 20th.

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    “A fly’s circling around a lamp that is recorded by motion capture and materialized into a lampshade.”

    too bad

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