Make Architecture



02 – Lasercutter: Zebra box

The aim of this project was to become familiar with the basic operations of the universal laser cutter by building an acrylic, friction joint cube. The basic laser cutter operations used were cutting and etching.

To do this project you will need:

  • 1  x  sheet of 3mm [1/8″] acrylic sheet [370mm x 80mm]
  • 1 x Universal laser cutter
  • DWG file with design (below)
  • JPG image
  • 3 – 5 hours


  1. Design the cube
  2. Pick a raster image for etching
  3. Cutting and etching
  4. Assembly

1. Designing the box

Since this exercise was more about testing the capabilities of the laser cutter as tool than the geometry of the final product, the very simple geometry of the cube was selected. The sides of the cube together with the notches were designed 2 dimensionally in rhino and then assembled in 3d to make sure all the pieces fit correctly. 

To assure a tight fit between the pieces, various widths for the tabs were included in the cutfile. Four versions of the same file were created, incrementally offsetting the sides of the tabs with 0.25 mm with every iteration. The correct fit would later be tested when cutting example pieces. After completing the design the file was exported as a DWG.

2. Picking a raster image for etching

In order to etch an image onto the sides of the cube, a raster image was required. I decided on an image with strong contrasts and an interesting texture. I sized the image in adobe photoshop and converted it from a color image into a gray-scale image. After increasing the brightness and contrast I saved two versions (each an inverted version of the other) as JPG’s. 

In basic terms, the cutter will assign a cutting power and speed to the ‘black’ in the photo and gradually, as the intensity of the black changes , adjust the power accordingly. An image with 3 shades of gray (100% black, 50% back and 0% black) will therefore have three intensities of cutting/etching power. In order to cut the pieces, I placed the images as ‘raster reference images’ into their appropriate positions in Autocad before cutting the pieces.

3. Cutting and etching

In order to find the correct fit for the friction joints you may need to cut a few test pieces. In this case I decided to cut 4 different versions in which the notch dimension is incrementally increased with 0.5 mm in each iteration. It turned out that the second iteration, [designed dimension + 0.5 mm] provided the closest fit. The original design were not tight enough to join the pieces with the latter two iterations being too tight.

When sending the file from autocad to the cutter remember to indicate ‘black’ as ‘raster’ and the other colors as ‘vect’. After the file is sent from autocad to the cutter (may take longer than usual since the raster image adds significant size to the file), you will be ready to cut. When cutting vectors the cutter will follow the cutlines. Cutting raster images differ from this since the cutter will slowly move from top to bottom, ‘plotting’ the image based on the intensity of black vs white in the image.

Click here for AVI video of raster cutting.

Cutting speed and intensity of power will be determined by your cutter.

4. Assembly

After cutting the pieces, remove the remaining paper backing. You will notice that the pieces will have a white residue on the etched portion.

This can be brushed off easily in order to expose the texture underneath. Since the notches were designed as a friction joints, no glue is required and the pieces will fit tightly.



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Instructor: Nick Gelpi TA: Skylar Tibbits TA: Varvara Toulkeridou
Class Times, Monday, 1-4pm - room 5-216
4.184 is an intensive introduction to methods of making explored through a wide range of brief but focused 1-week exercises. We'll engage the real and leave behind representation in the focused context of this class gaining skills for utilizing a range of fabrication machines and technologies from lasercutting, waterjet, 3D printing, welding, formworking-molding, casting, gears, joints and composites.
In this workshop we'll constrain ourselves to the territory of the 1:1. Students will represent architectural constructions at full scale and develop a more intimate relationship with technology by engaging the tools and techniques that empower us. We will gain access to the most cutting edge machines and technologies in the MARS lab at the Center for Bits and Atoms.
The second layer of information for this course will be to look at a series of case studies in which construction methods and technologies have played a dominant role in the design process .
Over the past 20 years, architects have focused on the technology of representation to create new ideas of what architecture could be. Looking back today, much of that research failed to substantially change the way we design buildings by focusing on apriori formal configurations. This class makes the contention that this failure comes from a lack of considerations of the potentials within fabrication knowledge. We look to the future of what building might become, given the expanded palette of personalize-able technologies available to us as architects. Students will participate in curious technological and material investigations, to discover the potentials, known and unknown, for these various technologies.
The sub-disciplines of what's drawn and what's built have been compartmentalized and disassociated as the representational tools of architecture have distanced themselves from the techniques of making. At the same time the technologies for “making” in architecture have provided us with new possibilities for reinventing how we translate into reality, the immaterial representations of architecture.


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