Benefacta 2006
Information by Design

.Kevin Kl
Kevin Klinger, the institute's director, guides the work of Ball State's Institute for Digital Fabrication and Rapid Prototyping, including research into the timely creation of new product models for manufacturing.

.Josh Vermillion, assistant director, and graduate student Christopher Peli.  The institute provides students with unique opportunities for immersive learning and industry experience.
Josh Vermillion, assistant director, and graduate student Christopher Peli. The institute provides students with unique opportunities for immersive learning and industry experience.

Some of the world's most revered historic buildings are masterpieces of customization that boast handcrafted, individually carved or cut stone, woodwork, and glass. Such lavish handiwork is frequently beyond the budget of modern-day construction projects, but Ball State University is playing a role in promoting technology that could lead to an architectural renaissance featuring wildly individualized buildings.

The concept is known as digital fabrication. Quite simply, it involves the ability to design on a computer and then transfer those designs to the computer-controlled machinery that creates the product. In the case of building construction, architects would not have to settle for off-the-shelf, standard-sized windows, exterior panels, interior woodwork, or other features. Instead, they could design with attention to innovative details, afforded by unique shapes and sizes, knowing that whatever they created on their computer screen could be fabricated digitally for an affordable price.

Ball State's Center for Media Design is venturing into this up-and-coming field through its Institute for Digital Fabrication and Rapid Prototyping, one of three digital exchange centers funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. The digital fabrication initiative aligns nicely with Ball State's strengths, including its architecture program. Indeed, the institute's director, Kevin Klinger, is a faculty member in the Department of Architecture, as is assistant director Joshua Vermillion. The benefits of applying digital fabrication to architecture and construction also are a good fit with Indiana's dominance in such fields as wood products, limestone, steel, building materials, cabinetry, and manufactured housing.

"We're forging a partnership with industry to serve as a catalyst to help them retool to take advantage of the new things coming in digital fabrication," says Klinger.

The key to making the concept work in construction is known as building information modeling, an idea that involves creating not just electronic blueprints, but entire databases of information about a building project—including the overall design, component fabrication information, and construction instructions.

"The General Services Administration of the federal government is now requiring that all federally funded building projects use information modeling to govern the processes," Klinger says, noting that such a strong push from the government will help the concept gain momentum in the private sector as well.

Indeed, a similar nudge from the government a few decades ago helped make computer-aided design the norm. Developing expertise in digital fabrication will serve a wide range of Ball State students, including those involved in architecture who will need to become increasingly familiar with not only building design, but also the principles of fabricating building materials. "The institute offers students opportunities for immersive learning, where they are engaging with industry partners," Klinger says. "We're also looking at ways to plug these processes into existing curricula."

In addition, the institute promises to encourage new relationships with the private sector, including partnerships through grants and contracts. "We want to be fully sustainable," says Klinger, noting the importance of the Lilly funding to the establishment of the institute and as a launching pad for further project support.

Though digital fabrication's benefits for architecture and construction have captured much of the early limelight, digital fabrication also has applications in manufacturing an almost limitless number of products. A related concept known as rapid prototyping is the speedy creation of prototypes of new products. In the ever-competitive world of manufacturing, anything that helps push products to market faster is critical to success.

The seemingly oxymoronic term "mass customization" also is being heard more and more in manufacturing circles. Just as digital fabrication allows creation of highly customized building materials, it also can enable makers of mass-produced items to begin offering more tailor-made options—blending the best of the preindustrialization craft system with the value of assembly line manufacturing.

Helping companies move in these futuristic directions can yield strong dividends for both Ball State and the Indiana economy. After all, observes Klinger, Indiana is one of the most manufacturing-intensive states in the nation, deriving nearly a third of its economic output from the manufacturing sector.

That dependence upon manufacturing has helped Indiana prosper in the past, but makes it especially vulnerable to low-cost competition from overseas. Whether Indiana's manufacturing economy can continue to thrive depends largely upon its ability to adopt such advanced manufacturing practices as digital fabrication.

"We've had a long history in Indiana of making stuff," Klinger says. "We want to continue that tradition and, through digital technology, make stuff better."