Gone to Print

by Will Rourk

Rapid prototyping, whether for manufacturing or design, is the process of making ideas into material form. It is a fundamental function of architects, engineers, and industrial designers. Though traditional architectural training has taught us to express our ideas in 3D with an Exacto knife and chipboard, automated modeling techniques are no stranger to the profession. But the difference between what 3D printers can do compared to traditional computer controlled tools is the way it handles the modeling material. In the good old days, like maybe three or four years ago, CNC machines created models by removing material. 3D printers are part of a class of rapid prototyping tools that produce objects using methods of additive manufacturing. A model emerges from the addition of material into minute layers that are extruded or formed by mechanical or chemical processes rather than cut away from a block of material as is the case with traditional subtractive manufacturing methods.

A Makerbot demonstration.

A Makerbot demonstration.

Additive manufacturing is really nothing new. What is new is consumer accessibility to this technology. 3D printing has existed since the mid-1980s, but it has just recently hit the mass consumer market because of the expiration of patents on the technology. If you’ve heard anything about 3D printing over the past couple of years, then you’ve probably heard the name Makerbot, which exploded on the market as a result of a media blitz at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which takes place each year in January, and has become one of the most important events for predicting the hottest emerging technologies for the year. Pictures of colorful plastic trinkets were plastered all over the tech blogs with the promise of a new manufacturing revolution and the advent of customized consumer goods. But beyond the trivia of mass produced plastic junk was another revolution that has been making a serious impact on rapid prototyping methods and design. 3D printers use 3D computer generated models as a file source. Whatever you’ve modeled in Revit or Rhino can be printed into material form. But to understand what 3D printing can do for design, it’s best to understand the scope of the technology.

3D printing can be categorized by at least three main processes:

•    Fuse Deposition Modeling (FDM)
A strand of plastic filament is heated and extruded into minute layers, usually fractions of a millimeter in thickness. The layers cool and form a solid object based on the 3D model you’ve told the printer to create. The result is a strong product, but the form can be kind of rough. This 3D printing option is the most affordable today, and it’s the method that the Makerbot uses to produce models.

•    Sintering
The most common form of high-end production-grade 3D printing is Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). This process involves the use of a laser that draws onto a hot bed of thermoplastic powder. Where it draws, it forms the powder into a solid, layer by layer similar to FDM. The result is a durable object with a smoother form than FDM products. Unlike the FDM printers, the SLS printer can print in thousands of colors for more accurate, high-resolution results. A variant of this type of printer, Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), can print in metal using metal powder as the manufacturing material.

•    Stereo Lithography (SLA)
This type of printing is probably the most complex, but it is also the oldest form of 3D printing, first invented in the 1980s. The process uses light to fuse liquid resin into a solid, again layer by layer like other 3D printing methods. The result produces the smoothest, highest quality detail finish, although it is not as durable as the other methods.

With the economy making it difficult to introduce new technologies into the office, 3D printing services may be a more viable option. But why is 3D printing an option to consider anyhow? For one reason: “There’s no more cheap intern labor, and so higher paid modelers have to make models by hand, which can be more expensive,” says Kate Novy of Anvil Prototype rapid prototyping services located in Charlotte, N.C., and Hampton, Va. “3D printing of models is overwhelmingly understood as a cost saving method by manufacturing and mechanical engineers.” 3D printing services can yield higher-quality models that have the ability to do more than communicate ideas in physical form. “If you’ve ever watched an architecture client sit with a 3D printed model, be able to pick it up and handle it, and talk about it in 360 degrees, they become physically and emotionally attached to that model. And then they are really invested in what’s going on with that project. Especially when a concept model is printed off in all white, it really gets people excited and they want to be a part of it.” Anvil is fully capable of printing models in full color and in a variety of materials. Since they are a Zprinter sales distributor for professional-grade printers, they can produce models that are highly customized for their clientele, which includes all fields of the design and manufacturing professions.

3D printing is a perfect fit for design and manufacturing, and for Crenshaw Lighting it has proved to be a vital part of their workflow. The Crenshaw Lighting studio makes high-quality, custom-designed and -built lighting fixtures for commercial, historic, and private residential projects. Crenshaw designer, Jason Selznick, has been working with Fast 3D printing service out of Maryland for more than five years to produce custom prototypes of parts for lighting fixtures. He says: “It’s good to get something printed to check the fit or see what it looks like and hold it in your hands before going to production. We can make a mold for a sand casting off of an actual 3D print. If an original casting mold is unavailable, then we can use the 3D printer to rebuild the mold. At times it’s cost prohibitive, but when we can’t afford to make a $3,000 cast mold in brass, then printing is a better, quicker solution.”

Not only has 3D printed models helped the design process, they can make a real impact when meeting with clients. “With 3D printing you can print a prototype and use it to illustrate the process going from computer to 3D print to mold to cast in brass,” Selznick notes. “It’s a real selling point.”

From her experience working with various design professionals with Anvil Prototype, Kate Novy notes that most of her clients have come from the engineering fields, while architects have been conservative in adopting new technological design methods. That being said though, 3D printing is finding its way into large and small architecture offices, but more notably in branch offices of the bigger firms like Pelli Clarke Pelli, which has production-quality Zprinters in-house. Closer to home, the Arlington branch of Cannon Design has recently acquired a Makerbot, an affordable gateway into 3D printing technology.

Working with Rhino 3D and Revit, designer Erik Maso has hands on experience working with 3D printed models for design competitions as well as client meetings. With 3D model files from the Cannon office in Los Angeles, Maso was able to print a competition model of a courthouse tower. He notes that with the less expensive printers, there is a price to pay in time and quality, “You really have to understand the limitations and capabilities of the tool to understand how to model the components that you want to print. Some people think that there is a tendency to assume it’s a hands-off process. You have a Revit model and you just export it, it goes right to the printer, which figures it all out, and it comes out beautiful. But the reality is there is a lot time reducing the digital model information down to the important elements that the printer can physically produce. It’s more like you’re modeling a diagram. You have to plan for print time and schedule it. The courthouse model maxed out the scale and articulation of the mass in the model, and it took eight hours to print. With bigger model printers, you could print bigger and faster.” Although Cannon has high end ZPrinters in some of their other offices, there are advantages to having a smaller printer in-house. “With the larger, high-end printers, a trained technician has to be hired,” Maso says. “You have the cost of the machine and the cost of the employee to run the machine. And with the larger printers, if something goes wrong with the machine you have to wait two to three weeks to fix it. But with the smaller machines, like the Makerbot, most of the printer parts are fixable via DIY methods, and there are great YouTube support and instructional videos, online user forums, and blogs to guide your efforts.”

The future is now for this young man learning to use his 3D-printed prosthetic hand. Photos courtesy of Makerbot.

The future is now for this young man learning to use his 3D-printed prosthetic hand. Photos courtesy of Makerbot.

3D printing is not necessarily a cure-all solution for communicating ideas. Maso uses the technology to augment traditional hand built modeling techniques as well. “The 3D printer allows us to generate complex forms into physical form to produce more complex shapes that are more difficult to build from planar modeling material like chipboard and museum board. If the form of an object moves in and out in the z direction, not just x and y, then printing really helps.” For high quality models, CannonDesign will outsource to a third-party printing service for important client presentations especially in situations where several design teams are competing for a bid. In these situations, a hybrid model of foam, chipboard, and 3D printing massing units can produce a highly effective and attractive model.

There is also the potential for 3D printing to impact more than models in the architectural world. Currently, most consumer 3D printers work only on a very small scale, producing models that are anywhere from 6 to 70 cubic inches. But there are, like Enrico Dini, known as “The Man Who Prints Houses” and inventor of the D-space printer, which can 3D print six-cubic-meter masonry models. He plans to print the unfinished spires of the Sagrada Familia and is currently working with the European Space Agency to design a process of creating habitations on the moon by 3D printing masonry from lunar dust.

With affordable access of easy-to-use 3D printers like the Makerbot, custom manufacturing has the potential to revolutionize rapid prototyping and product design. With a number of patents on SLS-type 3D printing methods set to expire early next year, the Maker Revolution is about to take another leap forward. An industry is building up around this trend to support home-based additive manufacturing. For example, Makerbot supports Thingverse.com, where you can access and download thousands of free 3D models that you can print. Shapeways.com is an online store that takes your 3d ideas and prints them for you as high quality models in a variety of materials and colors.

The technology is not without its controversy of course which was publicly challenged when the first downloadable and fully operable 3D printed gun was made available earlier this year. On the flip side, though, amazing things are being printed, like a robotic hand for children born without fingers, the digital files of which can be downloaded and printed on any 3D printer anywhere for free. Scientists are experimenting with organic printing material to bio-print tissues with the potential for producing functioning organs.

For now, most consumer printers are pumping out lots of plastic “things.” And with everyone going into mass manufacturing, a lot of plastic trash could potentially be generated. Fortunately, there are solutions emerging to help handle what could easily become an overwhelming, waste-producing technology. The Filabot Reclaimer, originally a Kickstarter project like so many 3D printers on the market today, is a device that will recycle plastic and spool it into printable ABS plastic filament. It is surprising that this is currently the only device that does this sort of material reclamation for 3D printers, but it’s hopeful that it will inspire other recycling solutions to be developed. Meanwhile, one of the major alternatives to ABS filament, the main material being used in FDM type printers today, is polylactic acid plastic or PLA. This type of plastic is made from biodegradable vegetable starch and can be extruded into 3D printable filament just like ABS without the fumes that ABS can produce and retains a shinier finish on printed products. Hopefully these examples will inspire the Maker Revolution to be a more environmentally friendly movement.

Will Rourk is a digital media specialist at the University of Virginia’s Digital Media Lab.

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One Response to “Gone to Print”

  1. Excellent article. A question for the author – do you know of any compelling case studies of the use of this technology in modeling data, as opposed to intended physical structures?

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