David R. Beach, AIA

Assistant professor of architecture specializing in digital design technology

david-beachCapture, design, create is an evolving paradigm shift in design and architecture developed through technological applications. As a process, capture refers to new methods that allow a designer to build a virtual model from a physical object through photography or three-dimensional scanning. A virtual model of an existing object creates the opportunity to move into the design phase, employing a process of study, simulation and manipulation of three-dimensional forms in a digital environment. Create refers to the phase in the design process whereby both conceptual models and final forms are manufactured (or printed) directly from virtual models. Of the three phases, create is forcing the largest technological disruption due to the wide range of potential applications, the rapid progression of 3-D printing technology, and the scalability of printable things – from organic material that is microscopic in size to entire buildings.

At the Hammons School of Architecture, we are investing time with our students to understand the potential of creating with 3-D printing through two specific methods of turning virtual forms into real, analog objects. Our shop has a large-scale CNC (Computer Numeric Control) router that analyzes virtual objects and generates a tool path to cut pieces away from a solid block of material. Our 3-D printing lab uses fused deposition modeling machines which break down virtual objects into layers slightly less than a millimeter in height. Each layer is then precisely traced and filled with an extruded material (usually a type of plastic), building a real object from a virtual form by adding layer on top of layer.

The process of physically printing a 3-D object from a virtual model, often referred to as stereolithography, was first developed by Charles Hull in 1984. Over the last three decades the technology has rapidly developed. Basic object prototypes in the 1990s developed into printable biology and self-replicating printers in the 2000s. The Urbee (the first 3-D printed car), aircraft, prosthetics, mass customization and mass-market desktop 3-D printers have defined the last decade. In practice, the method is not radically different from any ink or toner printer that works with paper. A computer program controls a print head determining the location of a material along a horizontal plane. The key difference between the printer paper printing and 3-D printing is that rather than one layer of ink which is imperceptibly thin on a sheet of paper, a 3-D printer places printable material in thin layers, one on top of the next, building an object vertically a single slice at a time.

Engaging 3-D printing technology allows our students to see the connection between design and fabrication, as well as the shift to customization of design and local manufacturing. In the design process, 3-D printing allows for rapid prototyping of variations for testing and communication. As the technology evolves, entrepreneurial designers will capitalize on the fabrication process by printing “one offs,” or custom fabricated site-specific products that work directly within the context of a space or a user’s specific needs.

Desktop versions of the 3-D printing are only a few iterations away from being capable of printing custom light fixtures, furniture, casework, and other building components at full scale.