Learning Digital Design & Fabrication through Play

The madMeshMaker is a generative modeling environment that enables novices to both CAD and CAM to rapidly gain experience with 3D modeling, 3D printing, laser cutting, and CNC milling. The lightweight application simplifies and streamlines processes in digital design and fabrication through an intuitive and playful interface.  Within the application, users dynamically deform a digital surface by clicking and ‘splashing’ it around a virtual environment.  The topological structure of this digital surface is embedded with the technical knowledge of an experienced fabricator: the software automatically formats the 3D form to export to a series of additive and subtractive processes (e.g., 3D printing, laser cutting, and CNC milling.) By bridging the processes between digital design and fabrication, the madMeshMaker facilitates an experience in which anyone, regardless of their technical background, can interact with a form in the virtual realm, and then fabricate it in the physical realm. 

The graphic interface provides access to a number of quantitative and qualitative parameters for effecting how a fabrication machine interprets the geometry. Quantitative parameters, like scale, mirroring, or resolution, directly impact the size and fidelity of the digital surface when translating to a physical material.  Qualitative parameters, such as fluidity, speed, and density, influence formal affects of the materialized geometry. In addition, machine-specific variables, such as undercut checking for CNC milling or surface offset for 3D printing and double-sided milling, enable more intermediate explorations into these digital-to-physical workflows. 

The madMeshMaker was published at CAADRIA '14 in the paper "Teaching CAD/CAM to Nascent Designers".


The logic of various fabrication machines are embedded within the digital geometry. For example, tool paths for driving a CNC router are dynamically visualized as the user manipulates the digital surface.  The geometry is also formatted to output to laser cutters or 3D printers: exporting to a laser cutter flattens the surface into 2D tool paths for laser etching, and exporting to a 3D printer transforms the surface into a solid, closed mesh.   A laser-etched canvas was made to test the mirroring and density functions of the application. The subtle patterns and sub-patterns created by the lighter and darker etch marks emerged from the fabrication process, not the digital geometry.


The modeling environment was inspired by one of the earliest examples of digital sculpture, Ridges Over Time (1968) by Charles Csuri.  Csuri created Ridges Over Time by programming an IBM 7094 to first generate a mathematical surface, then transcribe the surface into the real-world position coordinates needed to operate a 3-axis numerically-controlled (NC) router.  The NC router then carved a computational form from a block of wood as an “experiment with the elevations and frequency of curvature.” The resulting physical artifact represented a profound new relationship between artist and machine, in which the artist could bind their creative desire to the underlying logic of a machinic process.

Plotter drawing (left) and physical sculpture (right) of Ridges Over Time (1968).

Plotter drawing (left) and physical sculpture (right) of Ridges Over Time (1968).


The madMeshMaker was featured in two introductory workshops: one introducing digital fabrication to college freshman, and another introducing both digital design and fabrication to high school seniors. The participants of both workshops came in with little to no 3D modeling experience, and no digital fabrication experience. Each workshop began with a brief lecture on CAD/CAM technologies, then a hands-on session generating digital geometry with the madMeshMaker. After the modeling session, the instruction team compiled the exported forms into a single file to carve from foam by a 4-axis CNC router. 

The ease and quick pace at which a form can be virtually generated then physically made emphasizes an educational agenda of trial-by-error and learning through making. Today, many academic institutions recognize the benefits of teaching digital design that is integrated with physical production, and it has become a central part of the curriculum for progressive architecture/art/design schools. However, due to the inherent 3D-modeling skills required to use standard CAD/CAM software, digital fabrication is still designated as an ‘advanced topic’. As a result, students first experience digital design as a scaleless, a-material, approximated representation of a physical space/assembly/object. By introducing digital fabrication along side of digital design, concepts at the core of creative professions, concepts like scale, material, joint, and detail, can be incorporated within a student’s digital explorations from the very beginning of their education.

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As integrated CAD/CAM technologies become more standard to creative professions, academia must begin to shift their curriculum to not only introduce these technologies earlier, but to also introduce them as a way to provoke innovation and experimentation from their students. Although madMeshMaker is a single solution for presenting these tools and techniques as processes of personal creativity and expression, its higher-level ambition is to initiate an understanding that digital design and physical production are no longer separate processes. A creative professional can participate (or control) the physical production of a design or an idea. Similarly, their comprehensive understanding of the process and creative potentials of computer-aided-manufacturing should also influence and augment their objectives. As demonstrated earlier, the integration CAD/CAM applications in creative industries has a three-decade deficit behind manufacturing-based industries. In order to counteract this gap the role of these tools, and a student’s interaction with them, should begin to augment their skills in innovation and exploration from the very beginning of their academic education.


Download the software here.

See publication here.