Thursday 21 February 2013

3D Printing - the next paradigm shift?

Back in the late 1990's, Foster and Partners' (F&P) experiments with 3D printing produced some clumsy looking ornaments which we marveled over in the office.  A miracle machine could understand a 3D drawing and create a product.  No other human interface was required.  Craftsmanship was obsolete.  (That miracle machine could read 3D CAD files better than we could).

Only a couple of years ago F&P exhibited an intricate architectural model in in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, produced solely (in sections) by a 3D printer. This might seem like a big step forward with the technology and a point of maturity for its use within Architecture, but the possibilities are much more significant.  3D printing can offer a strong connection between Architecture and the real world, with real objects.

Perhaps the biggest advances came when 3D printing started producing the finished objects themselves, rather than just representations of them.  For example:

Made In Space ( are working with NASA to create a 3D printer which can operate in zero gravity.  The idea is that with one on board a space flight, another Apollo 13 style emergency can be avoided.  Crew members will have the ability to re-print any defective components.

MMS in South Africa ( have been using 3D printing effectively to create bespoke surgical components.  Working from CT scans, damage to the victim of a car crash can be assessed and titanium pins designed and made prior to surgery.  This was back in 2008.

The 3D printing revolution is gathering momentum.  Dr Joel Segal at the University of Nottingham have been experimenting with 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing technology to produce a violin which they claim plays like a Stradivarius!

Exhibition at the NLA, Store Street London 2013

This combined technological progress in 3D printing with experimentation in to materials and additives is starting to produce ever more cleaver and sophisticated fully functional products, straight from the laptop.  This is literally what some companies are doing.

In architecture there are ongoing experiments to achieve 3D printed buildings such as the Dutch practice Universal Architecture's Mobius Band house (  Even more adventurous is the F&P moon base (  The added innovation here is that lunar soil is used as the additive which means the base can be constructed with a minimal amount of exported building materials. No doubt this approach will be applied to remote, hostile or extreme environments on Earth too.

Foster & Partners Lunar Base proposals

Even now, 3D printing is available to everyone to produce personal and bespoke products.  Companies like Shapeways ( will print off your files and send your products to you.  With free software such as Blender, anyone can access this technology to model their own works for production.  This tutorial shows how.  Fancy designing and printing your own iphone case?

  Items currently are small but their scale and popularity is bound to grow!

The ring of the Monkey Pirate King, printed in silver (

What's next for 3D printing?

It means we will have much more control and flexibility with what we can do in our lives.  Printing Lego components which can interface with Stickle Bricks and K'Nex is a neat metaphor for the connections we might be able to make across platforms in our lives which are currently separate.  For example, one day we might have bio-attachments to interface the human body directly to other pieces of machinery.

How to interface all your toys  (

Engines of creation:  In medicine there will be 3D printed nano-machines.  The first examples of printing at a microscopic scale are already here (

Watch a 3D printer make a microscopic car

3D printer units are now reaching the domestic market.  ( They might be basic, but so was the photocopier back in the 1970's.

Filabot uses scrap plastic as a printing medium

It will not be too long before they are a common part if the home (like the microwave) and producing products such as meals, appliances and replacement household components on demand.  No doubt the cartridges will cost a fortune.

Imagine how the world might be where we shop for cartridges of material compounds and print off our whatever we need or want.  A Gordon Ramsay Michelin three star meal or a plastic something from the Argos catalogue? Just press print!

As IT discussions around Architecture are currently focused on BIM, and how we should manage our own plan-chests, we can't afford to take our eyes off this rapidly evolving technology which can potentially change the way we all live and work.  Now is the time to get on the back of this revolution, explore its full potential and integrate with the developments, so that the profession can reinforce its connectivity to the outside world and has some presence at the front of this forthcoming paradigm shift.