Jeffrey McGrew's blog

BecauseWeDynamo, a set of Fabrication Nodes for Project Dynamo and Revit

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We here at Because We Can love leveraging technology and creating our own unique way of working to make great things. While we’ve developed a decent amount of in-house software to help our work over the years, I’m very excited and proud to begin sharing some of that work with you, with the initial release of “BecauseWeDynamo”.

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It’s a set of custom-made Nodes for Project Dynamo focused on fabrication. You can find it in the Package Manager in Dynamo under BecauseWeDynamo and the open-source code is hosted here on GitHub.

A wonderful example of what this is all about is shown with the complex triangle walls of our recently completed Shipping Container Lounge project. The organic, flowing interior walls are made up of hundreds of unique triangles joined together to make a fluid, undulating, expressive (yet affordable!) surface.

Making something like this without some automation is almost impossible; the complexity can be hard to manage both in the design and in the building. So we used what’s called in our industry “Generative Design” where the combination of parametric 3D models and intelligent functional programming are used together to have the computer generate the design for you. You set up the rules and the smarts, and let the computer figure out the rest.

Autodesk Revit is wonderful at producing parametric models. We used it to made a special triangle object or ‘Family’ as they are called in Revit that you can flex using math into whatever size and configuration you need. You set the location of it’s three corner points, and the Family produces a flat triangle with radius tips, an offset ‘gap’ between it and the triangle next to it, and even proper placement for the joining hardware and more. This let us ‘hang’ these Adaptive Families off of 3D splined curves, making it easy to control the complex surface of the wall. Rather than model every triangle, we simply can push and pull control points on the splines, and have all the triangles model themselves.

However, just having a nice model of something is only the first 1/3rd of actually getting it built. Managing the production and assembly of hundreds of unique parts can be very daunting! This is where automation via functional programming is a huge help. We needed some way to export every triangle in a format that works with our CNC Router, and we need to label every triangle for ease of assembly. Doing it manually would take forever and is error-prone. Much better to produce a ‘script’ and let the computer automate that task for us!

Project Dynamo is a ‘functional visual scripting language’ for creating, manipulating, and automating all sorts of design data by non-programmers. Rather than write code from scratch, or call on existing libraries, and produce a stand-alone application like a software developer might, tools like Dynamo let us easily create one-off workflow solutions to automate small repetitive tasks and model impressively complex objects. It works fanatically well with Autodesk Revit, and thus was an obvious choice. Plus we really dig it, and dig the people working on it, so it was a joy to use.

Rather than write code, where the ‘flow’ of the program is abstract and non-visual, tools like Dynamo let you ‘draw’ your program. Perfect for visual designers like us! By connecting various Nodes together, you ‘wire’ together a solution for your project-specific problems, iteratively working your way through it as the code runs live and you see the immediate results.

Now, Dynamo is rather new, and it didn’t have all the Nodes we needed for this project. So we decided to create our own custom Nodes to scratch our own itches, and shared them openly for other designer-fabricators to make use of. For as we have for years now we release most of what we do under a creative-commons license.

So one thing our custom Nodes help do is parse the Revit model, label every triangle, lay them all out flat, and then export them to our CNC router for production. Every triangle is not only labeled, each edge of the triangle is labeled so you can easily figure out what edges go together. It made short work of this problem, and helped us make this wonderful and complex design efficiently and effectively.

Within BecauseWeDynamo you’ll find Nodes for part labeling, DXF exporting (with proper true curves!), mesh topology walking, edge labeling, and even our own custom old-school line-based pen-plotter style font suitable for CNC production. We’ve also got some auto-sectioning tools ala 123D Make, and are currently working on Nodes to help automate shop drawing production and development of complex surfaces. You’ll find on the GitHub site some great working examples, and we’ll be developing more samples, how-tos, and actual physical case study objects as well.

Our ongoing goal with this project is to make the fabrication of elements in Project Dynamo and Revit easier and more efficient; thus empowering all designers to be able to make great things like we do.

BWC Meetup at The Interval - this Thursday the 18th, starting at 7

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Meet up with us and help celebrate an amazing year at an amazing place: The Interval at The Long Now.

We'll have the back room this Thursday, December 18th, from 7 PM on, and we'd love to see you there.

The Interval is in the Fort Mason center San Francisco.

Close to several bus lines, plenty of free parking out front, and a paid lot right outside the front door.

The Interval has a full bar, wonderful snacks, great coffee and tea for the non-drinkers, and the restaurant Greens is right next door.

Come drink with us, share stories about your year, and help us raise a toast to the new Chalkboard Robot.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club meets this Thursday

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The Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club meet-up is meeting this Thursday.

Graciously hosted by BlueSprout, Oakland's new tech factory, the Club is an informal and fun user's group where designers, fabricators, and artsts share tips and tricks about these amazing tools. This month's meeting is all about cheap and/or free 3D modeling options for 3D printing & subtractive fabrication.

Remember, bring something you've made to show & tell, and get a chance to win a prize: $60 worth of 3D printing filament or CNC tooling, your pick!

Would love to see you there!

Our BlueSprout project, the Oakland-based business accelerator and industrial coworking space, got a write-up in the East Bay Express

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We are huge fans of Oakland, and so we are very excited to share with you the BlueSprout project we've been working so hard on. It just got a great write-up in the East Bay Express.

Go Oakland!

We're speaking at MakerCon

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We're honored to be included in the first Makercon next week. We're very excited to be giving a talk on Building Codes & Makerspaces: What you need to know to Hack that Space.

We'll be talking about all we've learned first hand in helping BlueSprout, the new Oakland-based hardware / business accelerator and industrial coworking space, get off the ground. There are a great deal of pragmatic and code issues that must be sorted to get to work (legally).

Later in the week, we'll also be at the Maker Faire, riding with the Serpent Twins. We'd love to see you next week!

Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club starting up!

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We're getting a local Digital Fabrication Club off the ground! Click here to join the Meetup.

It's an informal meetup to compare notes, enjoy some pizza and beer, and to help support each other's work. The group will cover the whole range of digital fabrication from subtractive (CNC) to additive (3D printing) to manipulative (Kuka arms!).

First meeting is this Thursday, April 17th. It's going to be at BlueSprout, the Oakland-based hardware, industry, and small business accelerator we've been helping start.

If you love digital fabrication as much as we do, we'd love to see you there!

See us at Autodesk University 2013

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Proud & honored to say that we'll be both presenting and attending at this year's Autodesk University. You can catch us on Tuesday at the panel we've organized, What Fabricators Want, or at our talk later that same day on using Project Dynamo and 123D Make together for fast digital fabrication.

We'll also be at the CASE Hackathon and generally out and about (cough Frankie's Tiki Room cough). Follow us @becausewecan where we'll be posting updates.

Hope to see you there for a great week of learning and networking.

Fall 2013 BWC Open House, this Friday November 22nd

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It's time to celebrate the recent addition of a new CNC Router to our robot army. So stop by and join us in the fun!

We are opening our doors for Because We Can's Fall 2013 open house.

We'll be starting early at 5PM and going until 8PM-ish.

We'll be dancing, drinking, snacking, talking, and showing off great projects recently completed and some currently underway. It's a great time to drop by and talk shop with us, too, if you want to learn more about what we do and how we do it.

Kids welcome, but it is a shop and a party. Lots of sharp corners. And they might learn some interesting new words!

Friday, November 22nd

5PM - 8PM

Just around the corner from Brown Sugar Kitchen, we're not hard to find.

All are invited, so come on by! We'd love to see you.

Meet us at the East Bay Mini-Maker Faire

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We'll be at this year's East Bay Mini-Maker Faire. Very excited to be included in a panel about Digital Fabrication and the future of building. We're honored to be joining the amazing Smith|Allen Studio and Sheet Metal Alchemist in the Maker Skills room at 2:30 PM.

We wanted to do something for East Bay Mini-Maker Faire, because it's such a great local event, but have been too busy to organize something of our own. So when they asked if we'd be on the panel, we jumped at the chance! Hence the short notice, as the event is this Sunday. Fun fact: all the Makers on the panel will also be 'Maker Couples' as Smith|Allen & Sheet Metal Alchemist are both run by a creative couple, just like us.

So come and see us at the Faire!

We Use and Support Open Source Software

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We here at Because We Can are big fans of open source and sharing. We love Blender, the open source 3D modeling software. We donate money to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. We release almost all our work under a creative commons licence, even our business plan. But one area you might not know is that we directly fund the development of modules for Drupal, the open source content management system.

While Drupal runs this public site you're reading now, we also use it 'behind the scenes'. We rolled our own agile production management / project management / Lean-ERP system using Drupal. Drupal, being very modular, can be extended and configured into whatever you need it to be. While we call this system "The Wiki" it's so much more than that. It's become a cornerstone of our business and how we work. And a big part of how we work is keeping track of time.

In the best traditions of Open Source, we reached out to one of the maintainers of a Drupal Module that's critical to our in-house system: Time Tracker. We hired Chris Hertzog of Codework Designs to help add some features we needed to the module. These features are then shared with everyone, given back to the Drupal community, so everyone wins. Which we really dig, as it's our goal to make the world a more interesting place.

Time Tracker is a nice, lightweight system that lets you track and log time on whatever Drupal Nodes you wish. Using it, we made a system that shows everyone in the company exactly where we are on all of our projects, how much time has been spent, how much time is left in the budget, and who's doing what and when. And it's all woven right into the same 'wiki page' that we use to manage and track information about the project. One lean, powerful place to help keep us on time and on budget so we can focus on what we love to do: making great things for great people.

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