Technical Article: “Digital Fabrication 101” by Dani Manning

September 7, 2015


A wide variety of digital fabrication techniques are being increasingly utilized by individual makers.  While planning this article with Dani Manning, we discussed focusing on a simple introduction to digital fabrication, primarily to help people that might be interested in the techniques but overwhelmed by the possibilities of the technologies.  In a friendly and approachable way, you can almost hear her walk you through the steps.  As a teacher myself, I’m looking forward to using this article as a great introduction to the possibilities of digital fabrication. — James Thurman, Technical Article Editor

“Digital Fabrication 101” by Dani Manning

What is Digital Fabrication? Simply speaking, Digital Fabrication is the use of technology to create. Using computers, software, and strange machines may seem intimidating at first, but it does get easier the more you practice. I’m not a computer person at all, yet over the last few years (and a few tough college classes), I have gotten pretty handy with my digital design skills. Trust me, if I can do it, so can you! Let’s go over the basics of Digital Fabrication (aka DigiFab), why it can help you as an artist, and how I use it in my own work.

So we know that digital fabrication helps us make stuff. There are several different types of DigiFab and the wide variety of options definitely can be overwhelming. Here are the basics that you need to know to help you decide which DigiFab is right for you (in order of ascending difficulty).

Personally my favorite, and the easiest of them all, is using DigiFab as a design aid. It can be as easy as scanning a sketch into your computer and tracing over it to create a digital sketch. You can also use a drawing tablet (Wacom, etc.) to create your designs directly in a program like Illustrator. There are even apps, like Bamboo, that you can download on your regular old iPad that let you draw with a stylus. Anyone can use DigiFab as a design aid, I promise.


Laser cutting is vector, or line-based, cutting of your digital design. Your vector file is uploaded to a laser cutting machine, the machine reads the file and the lines within it, and then cuts accordingly. With a laser! Acrylics, wood, leather, and metal work the best with laser cutting.

CNC routing is very similar to laser cutting, except it uses a blade to cut instead of a laser. It is particularly great for cutting out large things, especially out of wood or metal.

Etching is a raster, or area-based, process. Just like regular etching with ferric nitrate or other chemicals, digital etching takes away material from areas, except it uses pixels to differentiate where to etch instead of chemicals or resists. It works great on wood, acrylic, and metal.

Rendering is simply creating a 3D image within a software program of something you want to create. It is particularly helpful to create a 3D rendering to show a client or customer to help them visualize the design you will be making for them.

Perhaps the scariest of all the DigiFabs, this one is also the coolest because you can create something from nothing!  3D printing is an additive process where you create a model within a computer program.

The digital model is then uploaded to a machine that prints the model using hundreds (or thousands!) of tiny layers of filament. There are different types of filaments, from biodegradable to super sturdy ones appropriate for high-impact situations.


Ok, now that we have the basics down, you want to know why you should use DigiFab, don’t you? Consider these reasons:

–    Fully visualize your design before you commit.
–    Create precise templates, allowing for accurate measurement of the materials and supplies needed.
–    Easily manipulate your design without running out of paper or erasers, or having to redraw the same thing over and over.
–    Less cutting out All The Things by hand, saving time, sawblades, and bandaids.
–    No interacting with chemicals or dealing with the disposal of those chemicals.
–    Show your clients exactly what they will be getting so everyone is on the same page.
–    Print intricate 3D models for lost-wax casting.
–    Bragging. Rights. Because how awesome are you?!

How can you DigiFab? If you want to give it a try, there are a couple of the options you can explore:

Companies like Ponoko and Shapeways are great options for outsourcing, and both offer many different materials that you can cut, etch, or print with. I’ve used Ponoko several times for laser cutting and 3D printing and have always been very satisfied.

You can also DIY some DigiFab designs yourself, provided you have the machines necessary.

3D printing is becoming more accessible with several different options available for purchase for home use. I saw a 3D printer at Best Buy the last time I was there, so you know 3D printing is becoming legit.

Small-scale home cutting machines are reasonably priced and great if you cut a lot of pliable materials like paper, felt, leather, or vinyl. I have a Silhouette machine in my studio, and it quickly and precisely cuts out my design templates.

And yes, I totally practice what I preach. I use DigiFab as a design aid for every piece of jewelry I create.


I sketch my design on paper in my sketchbook, then scan it into my Mac and open it in Illustrator. I trace over my scanned sketch to create a digital sketch that I manipulate any way I want. I can move the pieces of it around, reverse the shapes, make elements of my design larger or smaller, refine the placement of things, get correct measurements, etc. I sometimes also use Photoshop to solidify my metal and stone/gem choices for my pieces so I know what to stock up on. When I’m ready, I send my cut template over to my Silhouette and it quickly and precisely cuts out my pieces so I can get right to work. And every once in a while, I outsource some laser cutting to incorporate into my work. It really is so much easier for me to totally plan everything out this way before I even start making. Plus, I already know exactly what the end result will look like. It’s pretty cool.

How will you DigiFab?


PDF of article

SNAG would like to take this opportunity to recognize our Corporate Members for their support: Aaron Faber Gallery, Halstead, Jewelers Mutual Insurance Company, and Pocosin Arts.

AaronFaber_sm      Halstead
Jewelers_Mutual    POCOSIN_logo_120615



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