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What is Computer Numerical Controlled Design? Five Beautiful Examples

You don’t realize it, but you probably own several things that are CNC milled. I’m typing right now on a computer with a metal case made using the technique. But its creative possibilities are still being explored by designers, as the machinery rapidly drops in price.

You don’t realize it, but you probably own several things that are CNC milled. I’m typing right now on a computer with a metal case made using the technique. But its creative possibilities are still being explored by designers, as the machinery rapidly drops in price.

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“CNC” is short for computer numerical controlled. It involves loading a 3-D drawing onto a computer. The computer then carves out the design from of a block of raw material, which can be anything from foam to metal. But the possibilities and technique are endless, because they allow wild shapes to be carved with extreme precision that is impossible by hand. (This technique shouldn’t be confused with 3-D printing, which works differently and is significantly more expensive.) Here are a few recent examples of how designers have applied the technique:

Architects Min|Day (who are, incidentally, creating a house for Hometta, which we just wrote about) created a computer animation of water ripples and then translated these into the surface of a massive wooden storage cabinet:

Water ripple cabinet
Water ripple cabinet

This honeycomb shelf, created by five architecture students at the University of Stuttgart, would have been almost impossible to create without CNC: Every cell has slightly different measurements, which allows the structure to curve in varying degrees at various points:

honeycomb shelf
honeycomb shelf
honeycomb shelf

The Quasitable, by Aranda/Lasch, was inspired by growing crystals but is made of wood. Hundreds of crystal-shaped wooden blocks were CNC’d, then carefully assembled and finished by hand:

quasitable
quasitable

Sometimes, CNC milling is a blessing simply because of the tools it allows you to create. Here, Office dA created a sinuous carbon-fiber table. The molds were cut via CNC; these were used as frames over which carbon fiber sheets were draped, molded and laminated:

sinuous carbon-fiber table
sinuous carbon-fiber table

CNC milling is slowing being thought of for use at very large scales. A good example is this exhibition pavilion, designed for an architecture competition. Cre8 Architecture intended the design to go straight to a fabricator, who would then just have to cut the individual ribs of the structure. These could then be slotted together on site:

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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