Tangential Fabrications

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Computer



Jan '12 - Aug '13

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    Fabricated at Michigan: Pongo

    Aaron Willette
    Aug 20, '12 6:40 PM EST

    Another fabrication project from the back catalog here at the UMich FABlab. As with La Voûte de LeFevre this comes from Wes McGee and Brandon Clifford of Matter Design Studio. Pongo is a coat rack that, to me at least, clearly exhibits the strengths that each brings to their work and reminds me of the benefits of collaborations. Clifford's design/aesthetic approach is evident in its formal characteristics, but they share the stage with McGee's fabrication prowess which was necessary to make the project. Initially there was some back and forth between these two halves as each influenced the other and was a great process to witness.

    This was actually the first project I became involved with when I got to Michigan a year ago, filling a role that is best encapsulated as "production assistant." While far from glamorous, I learned a ridiculous amount of information about 5-axis milling and production tooling from being involved with this project. When I later had to jump onto the machine for my own work it was pretty painless to do the 5-axis work in MasterCAM as I knew the how and why of how the machine worked. Plus after a couple mishaps I can now glue up multiple blanks in our vacuum frame press like a boss.

    Just to backtrack a bit: the coatrack was modeled in Rhino with T-Splines and all the prototypes and custom fixturing was handled in-house. This was actually the first project that the school's (at the time) new 5-axis mill was used on. Because of the nature of the geometry it allowed us to dial-in some machine settings such as the Tool Center Point (TCP) calibration. Its one thing to know how to use the machine, its a completely different beast to play around with settings like servo tuning.

    As the images show, the coat rack is an assembly of three identical pieces. The fasteners cause the three pieces to interlock, using the geometry to tie the pieces together. We've been able to get the model and the machining to the point that when joined the connection is seamless, requiring minimal sanding to remove the slight scalloping from the ballnose finishing bit.

    Production-wise, the project is pretty simple: contour cut multiples of a base profile, glue them together, mill, flip and mill again. The real efficiences come from the tool path planning that McGee performed, dialing in the fastest 3+2 axis paths for each task. This is a beefy machine meant for the production environment, so he was able to run high-speed tool paths with full-bore speeds and feeds. Coupled with the accuracy needed for the 3+2 axis drilling operations, this is a design enabled by the capabilities of the machine.

    This project is still on-going. Right now we're about to begin testing a new vacuum jig that was machined from a slab of tooling board we had laying around the shop. Different materials and finishes are also being given a run through to see what works beyond the plywood we've been using so far. We have a couple of assembled prototypes around the shop and they've become a stopping point for both student and faculty tours.

    I have no clue if Matter Design intends to have these commercially produced or not, these are conversations I'm rightfully not privy to. But I do hope that by the time I'm done here at the University of Michigan I'll have one to proudly put on display in my apartment.


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An in-the-trenches view of digital fabrication, academic research, post-hardcore music and whiskey. Not necessarily in that order and often in combination.

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