A Printed Future?

Often, as designers, what we are able to dream up in the digital realm pushes the boundaries of what is achievable in the physical world. Through such expansive thinking, we imagine new futures through new ways of making. Sometimes, those speculations have the opportunity to become reality. One technology that is rapidly becoming prevelant is 3D Printing.

The process of 3d printing can be loosely defined as the making of solid, physical objects from a digital model. The process is additive, where the three dimensional object is a result of the build-up of material applied in many thin layers.1 After emerging in the late 80’s as a technology, 3D printing was largely used for rapid prototyping over the next twenty years. Over the past decade, the use of 3d printing has expanded rapidly. From manufacturing (actual product) to exploration in the biotechnology field (engineering tissue), the possibilities for 3d printing are vast.  As of 2010, the technology has even made its way into the home as a tool to greatly expand the potential of DIY projects. 2 In 2011, an article by The Economist wrote, “Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did….Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches”3

The idea of using 3d printing to create full-scale architecture is in its infancy. But the potential for its use is great. For the first time, architects are being presented with a tool that’s very process is entirely built on interfacing with digital design. This ability to directly translate digital design to physical reality greatly expands the potential for complexity in design, causes us to rethink our use of current materials, and allows us to imagine a realm of new materials created specifically for 3d printing.

Two projects highlight the budding idea of 3d printing in architecture. The first is a process called Contour Crafting under development by Behrokh Khoshnevis with the ISI and USC Viterbi.4 The goal of Contour Crafting is to use an existing material (concrete), in coordination with computer controlled machinery, to print a building such as a house, on site, in a day. Using a fast drying concrete, contour crafting can create walls precise in shape with all cavities for the building system pre-planned and built into the process. A second project, coined, Stone Spray Project, is being developed by Petr Novikov, Inder Shergill, and Anna Kulik at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. According to the researchers “Stone Spray is an on-site 3d printer that creates architecture out of soil.”5 Using a solar powered set-up, a mixture of sand and binding agent are sprayed into a physical form created and controlled digitally. Using what is essentially man-made sandstone, they have been able to produce evocative forms out of natural material.

As the technology of 3d printing sits poised to become an available tool for the field of architecture, it is imperative that designers not only expand its possibilities, but also that we maintain a critical dialogue considering its use in architecture. Certainly, 3d printing’s ability to easily create complex form necessitates an even more rigorous design process in order that we do not convince ourselves that full-scale, built form finding is truly architecture.  Additionally, professions such as construction that are in direct contact with architects and the creation of the physical building, stand to have their process and value completely redefined by 3d printing. Like every revolutionary technology, 3d printing’s future is full of grandeur, but also anxiety. Likely, these opposing sentiments constitute the nature of progress.

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