Until recently, additive manufacturing has mainly meant repetitive 3D printing of material layers, working from the ground up, in concert with gravity. Fabricating this way is a bit like working with masonry: successive, equal-height layers of material are deposited to produce something. This final 3D-printed product can be a variety of complex shapes, although airy, skeletal structures present technical challenges, just like masonry.
This winter I received my first 3Doodler, the so-called "world's first 3D printing pen" launched on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter and created by Boston-based toy ompany WobbleWorks. The 3Doodler prints in lines, not layers (although you can do this as well). The device is like a fancy hot glue gun that produces ultra-thin, rapid-cooled plastic, and you can even "draw" objects in mid-air, so long as you start with a fixed and ideally horizontal surface.
Amsterdam-based Joris Laarman Lab has taken a similar approach to 3D printing at a larger scale and with a different material. Developed with Netherlands-based Acotech and Autodesk, the MX3D-Metal printing process involves the use of an industrial robot and a sophisticated welding attachment. The welding device delivers incremental amounts of molten metal which cool quickly, just like 3Doodler plastic. A range of materials including bronze, copper, aluminum, and stainless steel can be printed in graceful, skeletal lines in mid-air. The technology can even print lines in different levels of quality, from a bumpy rod that resembles an Alberto Giacometti sculpture to a more refined cylinder like smooth rebar.
In addition to offering the newfound capability of producing skeletal metal frames with geometric complexity, the MX3D-Metal offers another benefit over traditional layer-based printing. Particularly in cases where skeletal forms are desired, the new method requires less material—and is therefore more environmentally resourceful—than its conventional 3D printer counterparts. Now, fabrications can be more like drawings, expressing ideas with the economy of the line.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.