digital fabrication

Short talk at the AIA conference

Back in April, we were invited to give a brief talk at the AIA conference in San Francisco. You can download the video here, and the slides are available as a PDF here. No embed, sorry, don't know why the AIA site decided to go with a download for the video.

The talk is a five-minute overview of the five-step process we use here at Because We Can to make stuff, and we're pretty happy with how it came out.

While the AIA puts on a different conference just for technology-focused topics called TAP, for Technology in Architectural Practice, they also had a 'mini-TAP' if you will during the main larger AIA conference.

The San Francisco Digital Design group, an informal breakfast club we're part of, did a group presentation as part of that 'mini-TAP'. It was a format, i.e. 20 slides with 20 seconds per slide, with ten different people presenting. We were excited and honored to be one of the presenters, as our other nine co-presenters were all terribly smart and experienced experts. I highly recommend watching all the presentations!

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

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”.


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.

Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club meets this Thursday

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!

Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club starting up!

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!

Shopbot's new Handibot!

Shopbot, makers of our beloved and tirelessly working robot Frank, have launched a Kickstarter to fund the development of their awesome new little CNC machine, the Handibot!

If you were at Maker Faire this year, you got to see this impressive little portable CNC router. Perfect for jobsite work! I'm expecting a big future for this little guy.

Great thing is that if you know how to use a Shopbot at all, you already know all you need to use this new robot. And if you don't, Shopbot is looking to team up with various app developers. I can see lots of small apps for this; apps to route door latchset pockets without having to take the door off its hinges, cutting perfect circles for bathroom fixture install (like they show in this video), and a whole lot more!

So you should help back their Kickstarter and put these empowering CNC tools into more people's hands!

Keynote Speech at Autodesk University 2011

Jeffrey McGrew, our principal and co-founder, gave a keynote speech at Autodesk University this year! The whole keynote is embedded above, and Jeffrey's on around 24 minutes in.

Core 77 also transcribed his speech, and posted it on there blog, with a nice little forward.

AU talk

Instructable on the Serpent Twins Tails

Our good friends over at the Instructables asked us if we wouldn't post up how we made the Serpent Twin's tails. So here it is!

Enjoy! It's our first big instructable so we'd love for you to go there and leave us a comment on it.

Also, if you want to see the Serpent Twins in person, there is a big party this weekend at Jon's shop. All are welcome!

The Serpent Twins

A couple months ago we signed on to help with Form & Reform's project for the Burning Man festival: The Serpent Twins project. After a very busy few months (and one very dusty adventure!) they came together wonderfully.


The final two fully-drivable serpent sculptures not only look amazing, they are filled with color-changing LEDs. Color and video routines can play down their entire length, creating stunning effects. With a full sound system and accelerometer built into each head, the lights can also change and react depending on the movement and sound as they drive along.


One of the main parts we helped out with were the tails.


While the heads were largely handmade, the tails were fully digitally fabricated. It took a combination of software tools to make this happen. The graceful original form was modeled in Revit, bulkheads and bolts then rationalized in Inventor, and the skin unfolded in Rhino. The digital files for the entire thing were sent out for high-definition CNC plasma cutting. The internal frame slotted together, welded, and then the skins were bolted on. The 'carvel' style skinning lends the tails a very viking ship look and construction, while the fasteners and finishing fit into the overall aviation-theme.

L:\BWC Bucket\projects\Serpent Twins\Part Files\Tail\Revit Models\Shops.pdf

The sheet metal skins of the tails are bolted around a bulkhead frame...


And then attached to their own trailer, where we hide the batteries and generator.

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We also designed and milled the thick acrylic decorative glowing medallions to adorn the sides of the serpents.

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The white Serpent's body is made up of white plastic barrels that glow from within with LEDs. And the black Serpent has black metal barrels with scale designs plasma-cut cut into them, allowing the same LED light-show to glow ominously. We made many templates, jigs, and fixtures via our CNC machine to help support the largely hand-made processes Form & Reform's traditional blacksmithing demands.


Each head is built on small electric car that is super fun and easy to drive, and all the barrels track so perfectly that you can weave in and around people and things in a most snake-like way. But of course, you must be wearing a winged aviator cap to operate these vehicles! As Kyrsten Mate so fashionably displays...


Check out more photos on Flickr!

UPDATE: Now with video! Here's a nice movie showing how wonderfully they move.

See us at the AGC's BIMForum Conference in Phoenix, AZ later this week

We're honored to be included in this year's BIMForum conference in Phoenix, AZ! We'll be giving a talk about BIM-to-CNC fabrication on Thursday afternoon, January 14th, at 3:15 pm. We'll be focusing a lot on our in-house process we use to go from BIM to Digital Fabrication. We'll also be talking about the big changes that have been recently happening in that space. With a few fun things to show off, we've got high hopes that it will be a great talk!

In the past, CNC machines were used to solve one of two problems: either you needed to make a whole lot of something quickly, or you needed to make something that wasn't easy to make by hand. CNC machines were all about high production rates. And they had to be, for they were ungodly expensive, and the software and know-how even moreso. But now with CNC machines getting cheap enough, and the knowledge widespread enough, so that anyone can use them for almost anything they can think of, well, it really changes the whole game. And that's exactly what were going to be talking all about!

The BIMForum conference is held twice a year by the Associated General Contractors of America, an industry group akin to the AIA or AIGA but for builders. With a focus on emerging technology and it's use in the building industry, BIMForum looks to be wonderful conference of AGC people. People who are really making changes and making things work. So many of these technology-focused building industry talks can wander into the tall reeds of theory. So we're rather interested in talking to a bunch of people who are more about the day-to-day realities of getting things built! We're really looking forward to meeting everyone.

Hope to see you there!

Blender to CNC

Something that we get e-mails about from time to time is how we use Blender with our CNC machine. Everyone wants to know software, formats, etc. The missing link here is something called CAM software.

You don't go directly from Blender to the CNC controller; there is an in-between step where you generate toolpaths for the CNC machine to follow. Blender can't do this directly, and no one has made a plug-in (yet) for it, so you'll need to use a separate CAM package to do the job.

It goes like this. We model something up in Blender, sometimes from scratch and sometimes based upon an imported Revit model. Once we're happy with it, it gets exported to an .STL file. We then import that file into Vetric Aspire. Or, if it's a two or four-sided milling job, we use Vetric Cut3D (which is a nice cheap solution for 3D milling).

Toolpaths are generated by those tools, and saved out into jobs for the machine to run. Then we setup the material on our CNC machine, setup the machine, and then run that job. The machine goes to town, carving away, and then you've got your part!

We've yet to find a decent open source 3D CAM package. And honestly, the features and ease-of-use of the Vectric tools in combo with their cheap (for CAM software) prices really make it the way to go if you're at all serious about what you're making. While we understand that some out there want a 100% open source solution, we're using Blender because we like it and feel that it's got great features, not because it's free.

Anytime we get a question more than once via e-mail, we like to turn it into a blog post, so that we can share the answer with everyone!


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