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U. College of Architecture opens new high-tech lab

SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah senior Ryan Clayton, an architecture major, hopes to someday design "beautiful" structures.

He says he is passionate about the design side of structural engineering, and a new lab in the University of Utah's College of Architecture + Planning building will help him practice for his goals.

With the help of Big-D Construction, the university has opened its new Digital Fabrication Lab, or "Fab Lab," in which students can see "the transition between digital inputs and physical outputs," according to university officials.

A Computer Numerical Control machine in the lab enables students to create series of codes to drive the machine, which cuts out "small models of cities or life-size creations of buildings and products," university officials said.

Computer Numerical Control machining is similar to 3-D printing in that they are both ways to create prototypes from digital software, according to Creative Mechanisms.

However, Computer Numerical Control machining is subtractive while 3-D printing is additive, according to Elpitha Tsoutsounakis, assistant professor in the U.'s design program.

To illustrate, Computer Numerical Control machining usually starts out with a block of material and then cuts it into the designed shape, whereas 3-D printing builds designs one part at a time, according to 3D Hubs.

The university already has smaller 3-D printers located around campus, but the new Computer Numerical Control machine allows students to see their larger designs created.

The machine in the Fab Lab can cut up to 4-foot by 8-foot materials, which is a standard dimension for sheet materials, Tsoutsounakis said.

Though the students have had access to technologies such as the Computer Numerical Control machine before, they used to need to go to other places off-campus to find them, she said.

Now, "they can just go right to the source and have it in-house," Tsoutsounakis said.

It's the first of several technologies the school plans to eventually add to the Fab Lab, the professor said.

The lab is meant to help students from the school's architecture, design and city planning programs work together "across disciplines" and practice critical thinking through the design process, university officials said.

Mikaela Charlesworth, a junior in the U.'s School of Architecture, says students have been waiting for something like it for "quite a while."

"It opens up a lot of opportunities for us as students. Honestly, the possibilities are endless in what we can create now. I think it opens up more exploration not only of the machine, but programs too," she said.

Charlesworth says she hasn't decided what she wants to create with the machine first, but she is "excited to think about what is possible."

"I don't even know if I know, like, the full power of the machine or what it can create, and that's what's kind of exciting," she said.

Ryan Smith, associate dean for research in the U. College of Architecture, discussed how the design world is changing and how the Fab Lab will help students keep up with those changes.

Now, he said, designers are not only thinking of a product's users, but are putting more thought into "how it's going to be made" through the manufacture and assembly process.

Traditionally, "we don't consider how it's going to be made," he said, but the current design movement "forces us to do that."

He also discussed one way students will put the machine to use making actual homes.

By uploading WikiHouse files, the students will program the machine to cut pieces out of plywood or other sheet materials that can then be assembled into tiny homes and disaster relief homes.

"That's something we're excited about exploring," Smith said.

"It's gonna allow us as students to be able to really refine our process. We're able to make more mock-ups and models faster … it's gonna improve the final product that we come out with," said Nick Hammer, a student in his final semester of the school's master of architecture program.

He has a model of Japan next to his desk that took students "two weeks to create" by hand before they had the Computer Numerical Control technology, he said.

The Fab Lab will help "cut down the time" and "up the quality" of students' work, Hammer added.

"It's great to be able to have a centralized space, where we can actually have all of these tools available to us," he said.