Taking Stock of 3D Printing

By Hannah Bennett

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Make anything you want just by pressing print.     – YouTube Video

I think we all know the following about 3D printing: it’s a technology from the 1980s; it’s also known as additive manufacturing; its initial primary use was prototyping, especially in the engineering and aerospace industries. Here’s what we know it does: it turns 3D model designs (CAD files usually) into solid objects on demand. The material (traditionally plastic) is layered in an additive process through an extruder which is mounted on a carriage (not unlike a regular printer carriage) that moves on all three axes, building the form vertically. We also know that 3D printing has the promise of vastly improving production and manufacturing, creating more sustainable practices, and enabling incredibly precise customization. Perhaps most critically, 3D printing, or bioprinting, will play an integral role in regenerative medicine, generating artificial organs such as kidneys, hearts, or even skin. It’s difficult to imagine an industry that has no feasible use for 3D printing. Hod Lipson notes, “Food printing will be to 3D printing what gaming now is to computers.” Behold: digital cuisine. Or, thanks to Dovetail’s efforts, we can print fresh fruit with their 3D printer which operates by utilizing a specific technique of molecular-gastronomy called “spherification.” Here’s how it works.

With the decrease in 3D printer prices, this sort of personal manufacturing will have wide appeal and availability which is very exciting but also brings to mind ethical or safety concerns about what will be mass-producible. For example, check out Defense Distributed; there you can read about the “wiki weapon” project, an embattled effort on the part of the programmers to provide people with the files necessary to print a gun, beginning with durable rifle receivers for the popular AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Less polarizing but equally intriguing are projects such as Fab@Home, whose goal is to “democratize innovation” and bring personal fabrication to one’s home through 3D printing technology and open-source personal fabrication technology (see Fab@Home overview).  If you cannot come up with your own designs in programs like Google Sketch-Up, Rhino, Maya, or Blender, consult MakerBot’s Thingiverse, which offers all sorts of .stl files for the home fabricator to download and print, e.g., T-Rex showerhead, a cable organizer or a lamp. In addition, there are plenty of online communities and Meet-Up groups focused around 3D printing and design.

In terms of architecture, it is impossible to underscore the role 3D printing has had and the direction it is taking design, its functionality, and its representational language. The possibilities of digital production techniques can offer, for example, affordable housing solutions worldwide, in slums or in disaster areas, as well as looking at how digital designs can be shared and modified via the internet and new online networks.  In 2012, Softkill Design in partnership with Materialise and the Architectural Association School of Architecture’s Design Research Lab, developed the first “high-resolution” prototype of a 3D printed house, the ProtoHouse.

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In the Netherlands, DUS Architects are leading an interdisciplinary project which 3D printed a canal house in full size with the KamerMaker, a large moveable 3D-printer that was developed specially for the project. The 3D Print Canal House is printed with newly developed materials derived from biobased raw materials. It is also possible to print with recycled plastics. In April of this year, Winsun New Materials, a construction firm based in Suzhou, China, has successfully built ten small-scale houses using a massive 3-D printer. According to the Wall Street Journal, Winsun says it estimates the cost of printing these homes is about half that of building them the traditional way. On a more esoteric level, 3D printing has the potential to bring the “real world” into these hypermodern biomorphic designs (and protypes) developed from any number of architectural offices. Consider MOS Architect’s Ballroom Marfa Drive-In plans or Doris Sung’s Tracheolis system which explores how rapid prototyping or three-dimensional printing can mass produce a flexible kind of concrete block system which takes the heating and cooling systems of a building directly into the blocks (rather than a forced air system). The breathability of the block is achieved by incorporating a complex cavity system that is similar to the trachea system of grasshoppers, who breathe through spiracle holes in their sides. These are but a very few in the countless number of experiments, art projects, sculptures, and installations involving 3d printing. More recently, Arup developed a 3D printing technique for structural steel.

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According to Salomé Galjaard, the team leader at Arup, “by using additive manufacturing we can create lots of complex individually designed pieces far more efficiently. This has tremendous implications for reducing costs and cutting waste. But most importantly, this approach potentially enables a very sophisticated design, without the need to simplify the design in a later stage to lower costs.”

D-Shape is an extremely new robotic building system using new materials to create superior stone-like structures. This new machinery enables “full-size sandstone buildings to be made without human intervention, using a stereolithography 3D printing process that requires only sand and D-Shapes’s special inorganic binder to operate….By simply pressing the ‘enter’ key on the keypad we intend to give the architect the possibility to make buildings directly, without intermediaries who can add interpretation and realization mistakes.” The 3D technology company Inition has developed an augmented-reality iPad app that allows architects to look inside static architectural models, visualize how their building will look at night and track how wind flows around their design proposals. As a result, architects can call up a variety of information overlays that combine with the physical model.

Even taking stock of 3D printing today is a challenge. The important point to take away is that it is changing so many different fields, including architecture, incredibly quickly. We’ve also seen how 3D printing is changing how architects relate to spaces and the materials to construct them. By partnering other fields with design, such as cognitive science or biology, there is no limit to what 3D printing technology can bring to architecture.

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