A new machine is whirring its way into architectural offices. Extruding plastics, ceramics, metals, and more, 3D printers are increasingly used to build models, prototypes, and components in-house. But making the investment in adding a new tool comes with its challenges. Here are a few things to consider before diving in.

Make Room
Unlike a laser cutter or a CNC milling machine, which may require space to mitigate dust, exhaust, and fire hazards, 3D printers are often clean and quiet enough to work alongside designers. Still, many firms prefer to keep them with the other fabrication equipment. “Our [two] MakerBots live in … a separate space where we can keep dust and noise and all the other ugliness that comes with model building,” says Scott Dansereau, AIA, an architect at Perkins+Will’s Chicago office. That fabrication space also houses a wood shop, a laser cutter, and a three-axis CNC machine.

“Just look at it as a walk-in toolbox—nothing but the scale changes,” says Ergys Hoxha, who manages the digital fabrication space in the basement shop of NADAAA’s Boston office.

Pick Your Gear
New technologies can bring a steep learning curve. But, in Dansereau’s experience, many young designers are familiar with 3D printers from their time in architecture school. Tinkerers around the office may also be of help. When MBH Architects, in Alameda, Calif., purchased a new printer, it chose one from Ultimaker based on advice from designers who used the model at home.

Makerspaces, which offer digital fabrication equipment and software for use by members or the public, can serve as a testing ground, too. MBH associate Joe Irwin went to one locally to try out printers. “[We would] actually do some of our projects there and bring them back to our clients to show what service we could provide, prior to making the large investment of buying machines and bringing it in house,” he says.

Glitches can—and do—happen. “This is still new territory,” Dansereau says. “Understanding that you may have prints that fail may be a bit of a struggle at first.” Conceiving models in Autodesk Revit and finalizing them in a 3D printer–friendly software like Rhino or SketchUp is one way to mitigate disaster, as small details like a balcony railing are usually too small to print and thus need to be reformatted. And prints can’t go entirely unsupervised. The team may lose valuable time if a six-hour print fails three hours in, but isn’t checked until hour five. Newer printers, like the MakerBot Replicator Z18, have a built-in camera for remote monitoring.

Reap the Benefits
Relating 3D printing to billable hours can be a challenge. “My time spent on researching and developing new tools for the practice, whether it is in 3D printing, virtual reality, or BIM management is usually not billable time unless there is a project-specific need to be solved,” says Casey Mahon, who manages the Design Technology Center at Carrier Johnson + Culture, in San Diego and Los Angeles.

MBH, for example, created a matrix that ranks print types by level of detail from one to five, which it uses to communicate expectations with clients and to determine internally how much time a print will require. The firm charges for printing time, material, and machine-recovery costs.

Firms that have embraced 3D printing have seen their workflows evolve around the technology. For one thing, using the technology internally can shave days off the process of building models or components, allowing teams to nimbly adapt to a client’s changing needs. And lower material and equipment costs have allowed more firms to experiment with 3D printing.

“If something is over budget or unrealistic, [designers are] thought of as artists without a grip on reality,” says NADAAA principal Nader Tehrani. “In this case, because one is able to connect the dots between the process of imagining something and the process of delivering it, it changes the perception of the actual role of the architect.”