Additive manufacturing technology in general, and 3D printing more specifically, continue to unveil opportunities for architects and engineers to innovate in the design of the built environment. In the past, the industry has focused on rapid prototyping, but 3D technology offers more opportunities in design and construction when it comes to geometric complexity, mass customization, and material efficiency. But how viable is 3D printing in real-scale building applications?
In the design and engineering of complex structures and enclosures with a high level of customization, 3D printing offers several benefits. We are able to rapidly prototype custom joints and connections within a few hours, allowing us to physically sense the aesthetics, tolerances, and compatibilities. This further opens up the possibility of producing building parts.
3D printing also alleviates the geometrical constraints inherent in extruding or casting techniques. For example, it is possible to produce a ball and socket joint without mechanical connections or welds. Additionally, 3D printing allows for mass customization at no added cost. Each part is designed and engineered for its specific condition, removing excess material, weight, time, and cost.
Nevertheless, 3D printing does present some challenges. Warranting the performance of 3D printed parts with no established standards or precedent is a risky, if not dangerous endeavor. Scalability and the resources required in terms of time, cost, and performance can also be an issue. For instance, when doubling the scale of an object, the increased printing time is by a factor of four rather than two, and the associated costs and materials increase exponentially.
For many, the ultimate vision would be fully 3D printed buildings and built environments, but the technologies developed for such applications have lacked the precision of other 3D printed objects and have also proven to be incompatible with existing building systems.
The true opportunity lies in the combination of customized 3D printed objects with standardized elements. The 3D printed part allows us to capture the geometrical complexity of a design at specific points while keeping other parts standardized. We maximize the benefit of each. This approach has been used in other industries including the aerospace and automotive where they have developed fully performing mechanical parts additively manufactured. It is inevitable that as architects and engineers we will use 3D printing to create components for the built environment.