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Slicelab | Computational Design at All Scales
And why architects lead the field in design for digital fabrication.
Slicelab is a design consultancy with over a decade of experience using cutting edge computational software and digital fabrication to realize projects for clients around the globe.
With foundations in architectural practice through to experience developing metamaterials for high performance applications, Slicelab use their expertise at every scale.
Arthur Azoulai, co-founder of Slicelab sat down to tell us about their practice, why architects seem to be the earliest adopters of new design technology, and how different scales of production inform each other.
First can you tell how Slicelab was formed, who is on the team and what are their backgrounds?
Simply put, Slicelab was founded by myself (Arthur Azoulai) and Diego Taccioli as an alternative way to keep our creative minds engaged, and to further explore our interest in digital fabrication. The studio was officially launched in 2012 but the idea of it was incubated during our 6 years together in architecture school. We bonded over digital fabrication working as managers in the wood shop and fabrication labs. We were exposed to incredible software tools and machines we had never seen before - CNCs, robotic arms, and 3D print technologies and we were hooked. As far as we were concerned, it was the future of innovative design and we wanted to be part of it.
Once we started working full-time at architecture firms it did not take long for us to realize that the experimental design we had grown so fond of would not be part of our day-to-day. So, we started a mini studio for fun, not as a lucrative venture at first but as an experimental outlet that would motivate us to keep the momentum we had from school.
Slicelab gave us an excuse to dive into our curiosity in bringing ideas to life.
After graduating, Diego moved to San Francisco while I went back home to work in Paris. Truly, the real hurdle was figuring out the timezone difference but eventually, we established a schedule that would allow us to work nearly around the clock, handing off design work during the odd hours that overlapped. To this day, 10 years later, we have yet to live in the same state and continue to work remotely but have perfected our collaboration with each other to keep our work seamless.
Naturally, our initial projects were self-funded, mostly designing small 3D-printed objects. As we began to grow our client base, we leveraged that income to fund larger, more complex R&D projects. We liked that dynamic so we could design whatever we were interested in and it allowed us to fail fast, learn quickly and cover a lot of ground, without any red tape getting in our way. Balancing our paid work with our research projects allows us to keep growing our skillset and then be ready to apply to the next client based project.
Why do you think so many architects are/were in the leading edge of design for additive manufacturing?
I think it largely has to do with two things: the software used by most architects and the resourcefulness that is inherently found in the field.
Architecture trains you to constantly be flipping between drawing, making physical and digital models all the while shifting between scales, software, and fabrication methodologies quickly. The majority of that is now done all within 3D modeling software and it happens to lend itself well to additive manufacturing.
As technology has gotten more reliable, cheaper, and now accessible at larger scales, designers find themselves able to work up to the furniture scale they’ve always wanted.
Architecture takes time to develop and there are many bottlenecks and compromises within the process that can take away from the original design intent. Additive manufacturing, in some way, sidesteps a lot of that and gives a streamlined opportunity to design, model, and solidify the exact tangible object you have in mind. In fact, adding complex detail doesn’t affect price or fabrication time the same way it would when designing a building so the labor of love goes a long way.
The first ‘industrial designers’ were often really architects who got commissions to design everything from teapots and trains, to furniture and cars because they knew how to draw straight lines, is there something similar going on with architects and their early exposure to computational design that is making them adept at design for digital fabrication?
We definitely think so. Computational design is now a big part of the academic curriculum and is finally recognized in architecture firms as a much more productive way to design.
This concept of fast iterative design is quite valuable in today’s fast-paced environment. It allows us to test multiple prototypes without impacting the overall project schedule.
Another great by-product of computational design is that it has made it possible to create certain geometry and textures that would have previously been extremely time-consuming or simply not possible.
Workflows such as 2D packing, smart paneling systems, or topology optimization have allowed designers to expedite their process of getting from digital to physical. The robust software packages that are out there now have these parametric features built into them which also include effortless transitions for producing fabrication-ready files.
As with those early architects/industrial designers, your practice seems to cover many scales. While scale within design software is in some ways irrelevant, how do you make the cognitive change to real world fabrication and applications where size matters?
To us, scale is not an obstacle, it's an opportunity, even an advantage.
Working in various scales inherently exposes one to many unique conditions which have continuously stretched our comfort zone. It has made us the agile and optimistic designers we are today. In turn, our design approach is heavily influenced by the variety of fabrication methods we have familiarized ourselves with along the way.
One thing we find helpful in grounding our digital design is to simply have a measuring tape at arm’s reach. This reminds us to periodically take a minute to stay cognizant of the physical materiality we’re designing toward.
Working with all different 3D print technologies has given us a better understanding of the ideation-to-fabrication feedback loop and it keeps us from being limited to size, style, or medium.
We find inspiration everywhere, sometimes we see more potential at one scale rather than another. Design languages can be applied to a range of products so we find ourselves using similar techniques on very different projects.
How does a client know it is time to ‘call SliceLab’, and that your particular skill set and experience can help them realize a project?
Many of our clients come to us via word of mouth or are repeat customers because we have a track record as creative problem solvers, strategic thinkers, dot connectors, and storytellers.
We have also found much success in bridging the gap between ideation and fabrication and it has enabled us to make the impossible happen. The majority of our projects fall into one, if not all of the categories highlighted below and often in that order:
1. Concept Design / Product Ideation: A client needs help expanding on their vision, brand, or product idea. We get them to the ‘Aha’ moment that leads to meaningful design possibilities they didn’t know they wanted or were even possible.
2. Design & Development: A client is looking for our provocative aesthetic and fabrication approach that can make for one-of-a-kind projects. Additionally, we are able further to develop existing design ideas into the next fabrication phase.
3. Fabrication Consulting: A client knows what they want but has yet to figure out how to go about making it tangible. We are able to produce fabrication-ready files and recommend which strategy or technology would work best. We can then tap into our diverse network that is in place to take on almost any project.
What is a ‘typical’ client engagement and how do you transition from concept brief to realization?
Our ‘typical’ client engagements usually start with an introductory meeting to understand their vision and goals, even if it isn't fully baked. Once we can establish the design direction via sketching and mood boards, we work out a scope of work and drive it through to delivery. We make sure to check in with clients on a regular basis throughout the process so we can adjust accordingly.
There are a lot of claims from software companies and designers about the use of ‘machine learning’ and ‘AI’ in the design of physical objects that really boils down to simulation driven and/or algorithmic design in reality. The problem with real AI driven design for product design and engineering is a lack of real world data to feed AI algorithms. The use of simulation to create synthesized data carries the risk of feeding assumptions that do not match reality.
Long lead up to short question, what are your thoughts on AI in design now, and how could it be successfully used in the near to mid future?
While we have an extensive background in using tools that incorporate topology optimization, generative design, and procedural modeling, we agree that these methods are all based on user inputs and could benefit from larger and more accurate real-world data sets.
Alternatively, new AI tools like Midjourney and Dall-e, which rely on enormous data sets - in the billions, have proven to create astounding two-dimensional results.
In our design process, we aim to stay on top of as many creative avenues as we can by exploring these new tools.
We already see it evolving at an incredible pace but will it replace designers altogether? We don’t think so, at least not any time soon but it might help advance creative processes like editing images, conceptualizing ideas, or adding another vantage point for a design problem.
We’re currently researching how to use these AI tools within our own workflows and exploring how to create 3D tangible objects from them. We are excited for the next evolution of these tools where we would have the ability to quickly generate variations of 3D models from either inputting static images, word prompts, or even geometry. This would really change the entire playing field and add yet another set of tools to our arsenal.
What is the most important thing you think designers (and I guess architects) need to understand when approaching design for digital fabrication?
The limitation of material alongside the technology it’s being paired with.
The better you can understand both in tandem, the more success you’ll have in the prototyping phase, and the more you can push a project to a higher level. Not everything needs to be monolithically 3D printed and sometimes traditional fabrication methods can be strategically paired with other technologies.
Finally, how and when should a potential client get in touch with SliceLab?
We are always open and excited to collaborate with clients at any point in their process, no idea is too ambitious. We have found the most success taking on projects early in the concept phase as we love the ideation process that goes into laying a solid foundation and establishing a good design direction that seamlessly moves forward through all the phases of the project. Don't hesitate to reach out and discuss opportunities about how our studio might approach your project.
Big thanks to Arthur for his time in answering questions about their DfAM practice.
If you are VERY quick you can check out their latest furniture pieces are currently on sale at the Paz Lifestyle Pop-up, 325 Canal Street in New York until Sept. 25th 2022.