Almost every architect's office has at least one: a lovingly handcrafted scale model of a big project, usually under Plexiglas. These models represent hundreds of hours of labor by trained model-makers, working from sketches and conversations with the design team, and they may be going the way of the dodo. In this era of ever-changing technology, 3-D printers are on the way to becoming a cost-effective and accessible option for architects. With them, the ability to make fast and relatively inexpensive plastic models of everything from curtain wall details to entire buildings is available in the office and with one keystroke.

Until fairly recently, these complex printers were priced so exorbitantly that few except big-name manufacturing companies could even think of affording them. And while still not cheap by any means—the lowest-priced models range from $18,000 to $39,900, depending on the features and printing process—some firms have already jumped on-board: KPF has had two in the New York office since 2004, and one in London since 2006. “We use them constantly,” says James Brogan, KPF's senior associate principal and director of firmwide information technology. “We run them every night, with multiple schemes and projects in each build. They allow us to work on several iterations of building geometry and spatial studies very quickly.”

  • A completed model of a farmhouse printed with the new ZPrinter 450 shows off the machine's ability to print in full color and print patterns imported from image files (note the stone chimney).
    A completed model of a farmhouse printed with the new ZPrinter 450 shows off the machine's ability to print in full color and print patterns imported from image files (note the "stone" chimney).

Kevin Lach, vice president of communications at Z Corp., and Jonathan Cobb, vice president and general manager for Dimension, a division of Stratasys, represent two leading companies with widely different approaches to 3-D printing (see pages 52 and 54). Lach and Cobb agree that the 3-D printing industry is gaining ground in the AEC market, and that two major concerns are changing the way the printer manufacturers do business. “These machines have to be affordable and easy to use,” says Lach. “Architects don't want to handle chemicals.” To that end, both manufacturers have made changing out printing materials as simple as possible, with snap-in cartridges of binder and powder on the ink-jet side and integral water baths to dissolve soluble supports on the FDM side. Everything that the end user touches is safe.

  • The printing technology can build up thin walls and beams, allowing a true model of a space.
    The printing technology can build up thin walls and beams, allowing a true model of a space.

Also important to end users is reliability. “When the machines were $500,000 or so, people were willing to tinker around with them for an inordinate amount of time if something wasn't working,” says Cobb. “But now the technology is not new, and people expect it to work 100 percent of the time.”

The industry is also continuing to work to make these printers more affordable. “It's got to be a lot more cost efficient, and it's got to be fast. People want to change the design, color it. We're not watching black-and-white TVs anymore,” says Lach. “Everyone in this space is working towards a $10,000 machine in the next few years.”