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Computer Numerical Control // Valerie Gaughan


One specific expectation I remember having before coming to architecture school is that we would be doing a lot of hands on work. I figured we would build many models and go through large amounts of sketch books and trace paper rolls.  In the past year, I have put in more work in the shop than ever before building for Design+Make studio projects and other class work. However, an element I did not expect in my earlier years was the use of a CNC router. A CNC (computer numerical control) router is a computer controlled cutting machine used for cutting various hard materials, such as wood, composites, aluminum, steel, plastics, and foams. Last semester, a few of my studio mates and I took a class specifically about applying the use of a CNC router to design. We modeled specific wood joints, built carts, inlays, and boxes thought out the semester using the CNC router. We were given a quick taste of the incredible capabilities of a CNC. After a few lessons about the computer program used to run the CNC, we were capable of precisely cutting, carving, and drilling all kinds of things. The possibilities are seemingly endless but I will speak to the projects I have been directly involved with and briefly reflect on its applications and possibilities in design.


My first experiences with the CNC were slow pace and admittedly frustrating. It was a mixture of setting the cut depth wrong, using the wrong bit, or simply not being able to start the machine all together. However, after a few weeks, I started to get the hang of it and I started to learn a few tricks and see the fun possibilities. Below of an example of my box with a simple box joint and engravings of a bear and the Seattle skyline. I suppose with a lot of effort and time, a highly skilled individual could accomplish this task by hand but it would take days compared to the total of 4 hours on the CNC machine. 

The CNC’s precision cuts make it possible to apply small but important details to our work. For instance, with a bit of testing, we were able apply a small chamfer to the edges of our lettering and profile cut of our Johnson County Pavilion dedication plaque. It gave the plaque a refined look and made it smaller text more legible. Another example of the useful application of the CNC router for Design+Make was in the making of our fabrication jigs for the Johnson County Pavilion. The pavilion involved the repurposing of the irregular shaped glulam beams. In order to fabricate the individual bays of the pavilion before we erected it on site we had to come up with a jig that would hold up the 2-400 pound glulam’s as well as the 1000 pounds of steel that was connecting the two beams. We were sketched out possibilities and out it to the test. Once we found the proper solution to our problem, we were able to mass produce the complex jigs we needed in a timely fashion with the CNC machine in the APDesign shop.

The CNC machine has been making a huge impact on the design world because of its unique capabilities that are often unmatched by the human hand. If used properly, it can be applied to all aspects of design to build accurate prototypes, test details, and even efficiently build products of architecture. I have been fascinated with its impact on chair design but it goes much farther than that. The fabrication of wall systems, utilities, sun shades, structure, and every other aspect of design can be greatly impacted by exploiting the capabilities of Computer Numerical Control.

Written by Valerie Gaughan

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