3D Printing Comes to Architecture

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Industry News
3D Printing Comes to Architecture
by Susan Smith

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The Dimension 3D Printing Group, a business unit of Stratasys, Inc., was recently in the news because one of their customers, Mitekgruppen, a Swedish design firm, created for their client a 157 square-foot replica 3D model of the city of Stockholm using a Dimension 3D printer and Google Earth. The replica was the second most visited exhibit in the country last year when it was displayed at Stockholm’s Kulturhuset (The Culture House) in Stockholm’s City Center.

The Dimension 3D printer has been used mostly for 3D solid modeling for the automotive, aerospace and other industries in the mechanical marketplace, but has been increasingly employed by architectural firms to do physical 3D models.

“We take CAD drawings that have been done using some type of 3D solid software generated by an architect or designer,” explained Jon Cobb, vice president and general manager of 3D printing for Stratasys. “This information is sent to our printer. We actually slice the information into thin layers and then the machine itself prints them back out again using a layer by layer technique in an ABS plastic. Thus the information is sent to our machine, we turn it basically into our machine language and then utilizing an extrusion technique, we take ABS plastic and print out exactly what is on the screen itself. Typically we do that in a matter of minutes to several hours, depending up on the size of the part.”

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The process is similar to rapid prototyping, except it differs in that it’s an extrusion technology and builds the model out of ABS plastic.

Although Cobb said that architecture is not the biggest piece of their business, it has grown significantly over the past three years. It is also used by some sculptors who are doing some reverse engineering. “I think the reason it’s not utilized as much in the A/E market as in the Mechanical market is primarily because the software that’s used to design and build architectural models is limited to 3D wireframes or 3D extrapolations where you’re not getting 100% 3D solid data,” remarked Cobb. “It’s difficult to then print a model in 3D if you don’t start in 3D data.”

This may begin to change, Cobb noted, with the increasing use of building information modeling (BIM) as it becomes more prevalent in the architectural marketplace. “The Stockholm example shows the real power of producing the models in 3D, from a time standpoint and accuracy standpoint,” said Cobb. “Whatever the designer has designed, that’s exactly what’s going to come out on the printer.” Traditional model makers would look at an architectural design or rendering and then try to copy it. Although there are still model makers, there is a big benefit in a model that is a scaled version of the exact computerized model.

The model sizes on the Dimension 3D equipment range from 760 cubic inches to 1200 cubic inches. “That roughly gives you a 10x10x12 in the size of the model in the bigger machine and so what you can do, 1) you can scale it so it matches that number, or 2) build the model and because it’s made out of ABS plastic, our software, or most CAD software, will allow you to do a cut on the actual file. You’ll make a cut in there and build two to ten separate pieces, and then using a tongue and groove cut style like a cabinet maker would use for a drawer, you put those plastic pieces together and glue them.”

The Dimension 3D Printer has filament or supply material in the machine that supplies colors. There are seven standard colors so the user can select any one of those standard colors, so a user can either use those colors or paint on the actual model, as was done in the Swedish example. Dimension can match a color someone wants to use and send their supplies to address any color a company would want.

The price of the machines Dimension sells are anywhere from $18K to $30K, so most customers own machines themselves with that price point. Several thousand machines are sold every year to end users. However, there are a number of companies that are in the sole business of service bureaus which takes files from any user and prints those for them.

According to Martin Jonsson, co-owner and designer at Mitekgruppen, they used Google Earth on the Stockholm model for “visual confirmation.” The center portion of the historic area of Stockholm was pulled from Google Earth in the form of aerial maps and drawings, scanned and used in addition to 3D solid information provided by the client. The 3D CAD software used were SketchUp and Rhinoceros, and for putting the model into the printer they used the printer software Catalyst. The building replicas were positioned, secured and hand painted along with other landscape features such as trees, bridges, cars, boats and trains.

Jonsson said they do most of their architectural projects in 3D CAD software and use their 3D printer for many of them. The ability to send the model straight from the 3D modeling software to the printer allows you to have 100% exact replication of your model, according to Cobb. Just one of the storefronts depicted in the Stockholm model costs possibly $3 to make using the Dimension printer. Traditionally, a model maker would have to cut out of cardboard each of the pieces of the model and fit them together. Cobb estimated the printer saves 1/5 the cost of having a model maker build the pieces of the model.

Jonsson, said the time factor was what motivated them to choose the Dimension 3D printer, as opposed to having an artist construct a model physically. Similar city replicas have taken years to construct. “The whole project took about six months, and if we had done it ‘by hand,’ well, I’m not sure we would be done yet.”

Acquisitions/Alliances/Agreements

AVEVA Group plc, supplier of engineering IT systems for the plant and marine industries and INOVx Solutions, Inc., the provider of solutions for Asset Certainty™, announced an alliance to integrate laser scanning technology and plant design software capabilities. INOVx’s RealityLINx Exchange product is being integrated with market-leading AVEVA PDMS using AVEVA Laser Model Interface.

Autodesk, Inc. is partnering with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to provide real-world experience and support to an expanded pool of next generation engineers with the FIRST Vex Challenge (FVC), a robotics competition for high-school-aged students. The complementary program brings the spirit and values of the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) to a greater number of students and schools of varying resources, opening the doors of opportunity to explore careers in science, math and technology. More than 5,000 high-school-aged students on 500 teams have competed in more than 25 FVC tournaments from November, 2006 through March, 2007. One hundred teams will participate in the FIRST Championship April 12-14, 2007, in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

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