In architecture, is 3D printing the new normal?

Are 3D printers worth the price? C.C. Sullivan of SmartPlanet asks architects at the AIA convention and hears that the future of design is fully three-dimensional.
Written by C.C. Sullivan, Columnist (Architecture)

A model made with 3D printing by Jerde Partnership, courtesy 3D Systems

When it comes to computing, the buzz at this year's AIA convention is all about three-dimensional process: 3D CAD, building information modeling (BIM), and -- more than ever before -- 3D printing.

The big question architects, do firms need 3D printing to succeed? Is it indispensable, like mylar drafting film was back in the day?

The downside is still cost. Even the consumer-targeted Cube from 3D Systems runs $1,299 to get started, and it makes dinky 5.5-inch-square solids. For five material cartridges, add $219 -- and you'll be going back to the proverbial inkwell often.

The price of pro printing

Professional 3D printers are far more costly, but they have the high resolution and detail that architects need to make a convincing building model -- and the hardness that allows for normal handling, assembly and transport. The baseline model ProJet 1500 builds models up to 9 inches at about a half-inch an hour, and it's a $15,000 investment with plenty of maintenance and material costs.

3D printing is thinner and faster -- but still costly. A model by Rietveld Architects using an Objet printer.

With the American Institute of Architects' national firm billings index flirting with negative territory, very few architects are looking to drop tens of thousands on 3D printing. While business remains anemic, an old-fashioned chipboard models will do just fine, thanks.

For now, that is.

Plus some early adopters feel like guinea pigs. Surprisingly, 3D printing still isn't all that well integrated with 3D programs like ArchiCAD and Revit.

"Now that we have our design drawn in a software package that can handle 2D and 3D representation, wouldn’t it be great if we could hit '3D print” and have our design 3D printed to scale?" asks New York based architectural designer and 3D expert Piet Meijs with Rietveld Architects, which uses a 3D printer from Objet.  "That would be great, but unfortunately the technology isn’t there yet."

Even small firms can use this: the ZPrinter 850 from 3D Systems.

Throw it to the printer

Firms are finding limitations on the exporting of stereolithography (STL) files from common BIM and CAD platforms. Some are using alternative routes, says one architectural IT leader, like exporting to 3D DWG and make the STL out of solids engines like Autodesk's 3ds Max, instead of Revit.

Most important, making a great model to show the client takes more than mere printing.

One experienced architect says that firms have to estimate the time required for all the related tasks that come with 3D printing: "How much setup time, prep time, preprinting time, and postprinting time depends on how nice of a model you want." That little massing model is no problem -- but if you need a high-quality presentation model to wow the crowds, you need training on an STL editing program as well as all the fine assembly techniques after the machine stops humming: "gap-filling, element resizing, slicing and pinning the model as required to assemble it after the fact," he explains, plus the cavity cleanout and other tasks after printing.

But the Cube Hero is just for fooling around at home.

Another issue is what you can't print. Thin ceilings, fine mullions and other delicate shapes may break due to the weight of the printing powder itself. In many cases, the rendered model can't print small detail shapes that really make the building design sing. Objet boasts a very fine line, with machines that can print super-slender walls 0.6mm thick and even thinner still.

The true believers

Still, here we are in Washington, D.C., at the AIA convention and the Expo2012 show floor has nice, shiny machines that architects are drooling over.

Hand models -- the quaint old days of 3D printing. Courtesy 3D Systems

The most likely winner is 3D Systems Corp.'s ZPrinter 850, endorsed by architects like Wesley Wright at Pelli Clarke Pelli and other firms using them in schematic design, design development and even project delivery.

It's almost accessible -- just a few thousand deposition layers away.

We've even heard about the future of printing actual hardware and otjer building elements -- and entire houses, as revealed by my colleague Sun Joo Kim's article on a 3D-printed house in Denmark.

OK, that's just a dream. But will we all wake up one day soon to see a big 3D printer in the corner of your modeling shop?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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