Barron’s recently predicted that 3D printing would be a $13 billion industry by 2018, up from $600 million two years ago. AEC industry use might represent only a fraction of the total, but the trend is definitely ascending.
There’s no doubt the technology can do some fascinating things. Machines can now print with all sorts of powderized materials, from concrete to chocolate. ZGF Architects’ Robert Petty printed his wedding ring using powderized silver, and “it’s held up fine,” he says. At the recent 3D Print Design show in New York, Perkins+Will displayed a six-foot-tall model of a skyscraper that it had printed on a MakerBot machine.
The 3D printer industry keeps making strides in technology and affordability. WobbleWorks recently released an upgrade of its 3D printing pen—yes, it’s a pen, the 3Doodle—that it’s selling for $100 a pop.
After two years of secretive development, Redwood, Calif., startup Carbon3D unveiled a 3D printing process called CLIP (for “continuous liquid interface production”) that uses light to cure the extruded resin that forms the physical objects and models. The company claims this process is 25–100 times faster than anything that’s currently available. Autodesk recently invested $10 million in Carbon3D.
Carbon 3D's continuous liquid interface production process
In March, Trimble released an update of 3D Warehouse, its online platform for sharing and downloading free 3D models and materials, which is a key component of the SketchUp 3D modeling software. Autodesk recently introduced Spark, an open-source platform that enables 3D applications and services to deliver 3D models for any printer or service bureau.
Higher quality printers, greater affordability, new technical processes—all represent promising solutions that AEC firms are looking for as they try to figure out where 3D printing fits into their larger technology picture.
Amid all the ballyhoo, there’s still the question of how embedded 3D printers will become in AEC firms’ workflow. Jorge Barrero, a Senior Associate at Gensler, compares 3D printing to a familiar domestic technology: “It’s like the microwave,” he says. “It never replaced the oven, but it made it into everyone’s kitchen.”