3D Printing: Key Factors for AEC Professionals to Consider

3D printers

Only after I sat down to write a blog on 3D printers did I realize that, despite how much I know on this subject, there’s still so much more I have to learn.

Maybe you have come to the same realization now that you’ve begun researching your options. The different brands, models, technologies and applications  of 3D printers are endless. I am a man who has spent the majority of his life in the printing and reprographics industry and I have served the AEC communities, specifically, for more than 20 years.

Staying at the forefront of technology has always been a priority for me. So I pride myself on being one of the best, most experienced and knowledgeable people in this field. The payoff for my dedication has been that many, if not all, of our customers trust me and my team completely. You allow us to guide you in the direction that we believe fits your needs, and that of your company, best. With that being said, I’ve made it my quest to learn as much as I can in order to be able to serve AEC professionals with the expertise they have come to know and expect from CSDS.

cube3_blogIf you are in the market for a 3D printer and have already begun your search, you have undoubtedly found that there are literally hundreds of choices.

Models range in price from $200 (DIY) to well over a $1,000,000+, and there are countless different printing mediums ranging from plastic to chocolate, and metal to rubber.  There’s even a plan to ship a 3D printer to the moon which will use moon dust to create the very first lunar colony: http://sservi.nasa.gov/articles/building-a-lunar-base-with-3d-printing/

Lunar Colonies? Really? Wow!

While I know that the majority of you are not ready to build a lunar colony, I would venture to say that many of you are considering bringing 3D technology into your workflows.

So for those of you in the AEC industry, I’d like to share my knowledge about what to look for in a 3D printer, as well as what to avoid. I started looking at 3D printers as far back as 10 years ago when CSDS was researching whether or not to bring 3D printing into our Reprographics Department. We wanted to offer this service to our clients as a means of printing architectural models without the expense of purchasing their own printer. I recall walking into many architectural and engineering offices and seeing beautiful, handcrafted balsa wood models and thinking, what a beautiful work of art and what a fantastic tool to show existing and potential customers your firm’s vision, and their dreams, in a very tangible way. Then I thought about the business end. How many hours did that take to build? At what cost? Could we produce a similar model with a 3D printer that would save our customers time and money?

Back when we were considering 3D printing technology, the choice in manufacturers was very limited.

There really were only a few options. Early in my search, I discovered a company by the name of Z Corporation. ZCorp was the leader in the 3D printing world (especially as it pertained to the AEC market). The printer I looked at used a gypsum powder material with an HP print head(s). One print head was used to spray a binding solution (super glue) another sprayed ink. The printer created beautiful, full color models in just a few hours (okay, maybe 8 or so).  But more importantly, these models could be built right from a 3D CAD file. The hurdles?

Back then, entry level printers were $50,000+. These printers also required a true 3D software and, more importantly, someone who understood the software and how to handle 3D files. Fast forward ten years and I have found that while you still have to invest in the right people, software and equipment, once all that is in place 3D printing is far simpler than the balsa wood and Xacto knife route. While some would argue that it is not as creative as, they would have to agree that this process is far less tasking when it comes to time expended and the ability to meet a deadline.

As for production costs, 3D printers generally cost $20 – $30 a cubic inch when considering material and labor cost.

Many models are far more labor intensive than I would have ever guessed. Depending on the technology, obtaining an acceptable model requires more than just the push of a button. For example, with the inkjet/powder technology we chose (we found this the best choice for full-color architectural modeling), the final model must be printed, vacuumed and hardened using a variety of processes. It also requires baking, sanding and color enhancements. That’s if it is a simple model. If your model happens to have any moving parts, the post processing required is extremely tedious and requires hours of patience and an even greater attention to detail. One mistake can result in a broken wall, gear, roof, etc. Or, Even worse, if the model is dropped it can set you back to the beginning, resulting not only in increased printing cost but also the time it took to print the model or prototype and all the labor it took to reach the finishing stage.

So as you can see, understanding the 3D printing process and all it entails with regard to the benefits it brings to your business is just a portion of what we need to consider. The staffing required and the financial investment necessary are also critical to making the determination as to whether you should purchase your own 3D printer or outsource for this service. Do you have a need today for 3D printed models? Do you see a need in your company’s future for 3D models? If so, where do you see the future of 3D printing going as it relates to the AEC industry? We welcome your thoughts and comments before our next blog focusing on the direction CSDS has chosen to take with 3D printers and the manufacturer we have selected to be our partner.