A Profound Enabler for Inspired Thinking: 3D Printing (published in ENR 02/2015)

March 20, 2015 Media

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY A Profound Enabler for Inspired Thinking: 3D Printing
Article published in Engineering News Record in 02/2015:

While introducing linear perspective to painting and architecture, Renaissance artist and engineer Brunelleschi did not only innovate technical procedures, but the ways of perception and of understanding. His geometric composition of space involved a radical rethinking of architecture and opened up new means of construction, as is evidenced in the Cupola of the Duomo in Florence. This architectural masterpiece introduced ground-breaking engineering innovations and brought a century-long unresolved construction problem to completion.

A similar paradigm shift is brought about by the introduction of 3d modeling and 3d printing in the design and construction industry. While Foster and Partners together with building contractor Skanska develop a technology to robotically 3d print high performance concrete, Arup unveiled their first metal-3d-printed structural node and a Chinese materials firm 3d prints whole buildings with a construction waste / concrete mix. At the same time 3d desktop printers find their way into A&E offices for rapid prototyping of building components or printing of design models. These 3d technologies offer new possibilities of implementing complex building shapes, lift limitations in the design process and have a potential to simplify and streamline the construction process altogether.

Our first 3d print was a nut and bolt model stored on the SD card that came with the 3d printer. I never thought that such a mundane object would evoke this much excitement in our office. Applause. The nut fits the bolt. The assembly feels astonishingly sturdy. Ready to get to the real work.

We purchased a 3d printer because our building design got increasingly complex and we felt that virtual modeling in Rhino and 3d-Max produces nice renderings but comes with a major drawback: The tactile aspect of human perception and with it our design judgment was not addressed. 3d modeling is a great design tool, indispensable in the design process, and renderings are a great tool to communicate these ideas but there is a vast difference in seeing (and touching) a physical model, spinning it around, looking at the less favourable angles. The physical model is brutally honest.

Our first architectural model print was a complex, curved shape building with a skewed roof and a parametric facade, the type of design that takes forever to build as a conventional model. The design was for a competition of a cultural center in Germany, approx. 200,000 sf in size. We had modelled the building in Rhino, shot countless renderings and were very satisfied with the – virtual – results. After seeing the 3d print though we immediately understood that the design needed more work. We had to overhaul the proportions, radiuses, cutouts and reassess the interaction with the surrounding cityscape (of which we had built a simple Styrofoam model).

After several iterations the design was perfect and we printed the model for a meeting with Arup who were our consulting engineers for the Plusenergy Building we designed. At Arup’s office at Water Street their new 3d printer was proudly displayed in the spotlight on a pedestal: A new and relevant technology which appears to spread quickly in the A&E world.

Since this first experience in 3d printing we made it a mandatory part of our design process to print physical models of all ground-up buildings and substantial enlargements we design. The models complement our renderings and allow our clients as much as ourselves to fully understand the design. The process is more complicated though than printing a rendering on a color laser. Unfortunately, I should add, and until the soft- and hardware catches up with the new reality. Since we build virtual 3d models of our design anyways – in visualization software like Rhino or 3d Max or directly in BIM – it should be simple to hit ‘ctrl+p’ and send the design to 3d print. The reality however is a fairly time consuming process of building a dedicated 3d-print-model which needs to have specific properties. Otherwise the print may fail, perhaps at the 90% mark and one needs to start over. The actual print time needs to also be considered. One hour print time for each 10 cubic inches of model is a good average, depending on the printer model and the print resolution. Misprints due to a not properly adjusted base plate or other random issues are also not uncommon. A technical mind combined with the willingness to get ones hands dirty certainly helps the process.

Once the workflow is established and the printer’s ‘character flaws’ are understood the printing process becomes very straight forward and is significantly less time consuming than building an analog model.
But – more importantly – something else happens here. It is really not about time savings, a more streamlined visualization process or convenience. A major paradigm shift is shaping up and finds its way into our daily practice. Technical limitations are fading and creativity is allowed to flow freely. Analogous to Brunelleschi who looked at architecture and engineering with a ‘beginner’s mind’ and thus opened the doors for major innovation, 3d printing has the potential to drastically change the way we think, design and build.

Design aesthetics, the interaction with cityscape and urban fabric as well as meaning and identity of the building will always be requirements which cannot be addressed and resolved by means of technology alone. In this context though, 3d modeling and 3d printing are profound facilitators, a great tool kit for inspired minds.