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Going global with digital fabrication

Exteriors, Features, Structure Basics | May 1, 2013 | By:

Advanced technology opens door to new design possibilities.

With digital fabrication, the fabric industry has a powerful tool to combine international expertise with on-the-ground knowledge of local building conditions and client needs. Thanks to computer-aided design software and the Internet, clients, designers, fabricators and manufacturers can work together across time zones and long distances. The combination of digital design and digitally-controlled fabrication is leading to creative and unexpected production that is redefining the industry and blurring traditional boundaries of the trades.

In almost all projects, digital fabricators can work with local architects familiar with local codes and the client’s needs. As Murray Higgs, CEO of Auckland-based Structurflex, explains, “architects provide their concept design, the function and location of the projects…and [details about] the particular translucency required.”

From this base of information, fabricators can identify the type of fabric required and potential suppliers. “In the U.S. market, we typically specify the product for the architect and owner,” says Bart Dreiling, head of Structurflex’s North American office, Kansas City, Mo. “[In] other markets, the architect is often responsible for specifying the makeup, type and raw material manufacturer.”

Structurflex is in constant contact with fabric suppliers and manufacturers who “regularly keep us up to date on new products and their marketing priorities,” Higgs says. He goes on to praise fabric manufacturers for their promotion of fabric architecture and helping to grow the total market.

A precision process

For many projects, such as those illustrated here in
the U.S. and New Zealand, Structurflex uses its expertise in digital design and fabrication, taking advantage of the technology available to the industry. The company tailors CAD software to meet manufacturing and design needs specific to fabric structures. This technology, along with
its ability to collaborate with owners and architects through all stages, are two of the company’s greatest
competitive advantages.

Once Structurflex has clear programmatic and concept direction, its in-house designers in Kansas City and Auckland engineer and pattern the building elements. Structurflex New Zealand cuts and fabricates the membranes for container shipment to the final destination.

Dreiling observes that, “we often interface with systems being designed and fabricated by others, in which case
a high degree of coordination is required.  Once the
analysis is completed and an engineering report is
developed then approved or reviewed by the architect
of record and engineer of record, we commence detailed fabrication drawings.”

At this stage, Stucturflex develops a set of two-dimensional cutting patterns from the three-dimensional model in its specialty software. “The material is also tested and analyzed before this process,” Dreiling says, “in order to adjust the flat pattern for the amount of stretch or compensation the material will experience during installation tensioning.”

The fabric patterns are then refined with “add ons” for seaming, special cutting at corners and penetration locations. This is done in AutoCAD then converted to a DXF file, which is readable by an electronic cutting and plotting machine that works on a CNC (computer numerical control). This process allows for a very high degree of accuracy in matching the final product with the original modeling and analysis.

“There is a tight level of tolerance in our fabrication,” says Dreiling, “however problems can arise from less stringent tolerances and detailing in other components such as structural [elements] which may be by others, foundations, connection points on existing buildings, etc.”

Working around the world

Companies working in many countries must adapt to varying levels of trade protectionism. Recently, Structurflex began a joint venture in São Paulo, Brazil. “While we are able to cost-efficiently and safely ship a fabricated structure from New Zealand to the United States,” Dreiling says, “we do not enjoy the same option for Brazil.”

In response to that country’s high taxes and duties on imports, Structurflex established a joint venture with São Paulo-based
Nautika Ltda.—a company with membrane fabrication abilities and experience. This locally-based manufacturing capacity should help the partnership to succeed in Brazil’s rapidly growing economy.

By adapting to local regulations and climates, and continuously building in-house design expertise, local fabricators are now able travel the world.

Contributing editor Frank Edgerton Martin’s profile on design firm SO-IL’s white-on-white interior for a New York production firm appeared in the Jan/Feb issue.

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