AD Essentials: 3D Printing

This article is part of ArchDaily Essentials, a series of articles which give you an overview of architecture's most important topics by connecting together some of our best articles from the past. To find out more about ArchDaily Essentials, click here; or discover all of our articles in the series here.

In the discourse of modern architecture, fewer techniques sound as cutting-edge and attract as much attention as 3D printing. Conjuring images of wild and previously impossible forms, 3D printing has made explosive headway in the past decade, quickly becoming a hot topic for designers and artists of all kinds. Despite the presence and excitement that 3D printed projects command, many people are unfamiliar with the uses and benefits of 3D printing. What exactly does 3D printing have to offer architecture?

What is 3D printing?

3D printing, or “Additive Manufacturing” as it is more properly known, is a cover-all term for the process by which objects are gradually formed, layer by layer, using digital modeling software and specialized equipment. Since the first instance of 3D Printing in the mid-late 1980s, the practice has expanded to include many different methods. Stereo-lithography, SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) and Fused Deposition Modeling are all different methods of 3D printing that have emerged within the last decade, and though the technology of additive manufacturing has been around for almost 30 years, until recently it was a hugely expensive and arduous process. Even now, newer methods like Carbon3D and augmentations to existing 3D printing methods are being developed and released, the revolutionary image of the craft appealing to designers and engineers that experiment with it:

Carbon3D Can Grow Seamless Structures 100x Faster than 3D Printing


What use does 3D printing have to architects?

Due to 3D printing's status as a nascent technology - in terms of being a widely accessible tool, at least - it is still finding different uses in architecture. As a design tool, it is quickly becoming a go-to method for offices and firms interested in experimenting with more efficient or interesting ways of working.

With the capabilities of modern 3D printers, architects can now generate models for experimentation and representation much faster than previously possible. With the additive nature of 3D printing, less material and time is wasted than with traditional model building and with the machine-precision of a 3D printer, bolder and more ambitious forms can be experimented with and viewed outside of a computer screen in 3 dimensions:

The Burgeoning Craft of 3D Printing

A Practical Study in the Discipline of Architectural Modelmaking

Furthermore, with the advent of personal 3D printing tools like the Makerbot and the 3Doodler, 3D printing is cheaper and more accessible than before, providing an attractive alternative to traditional model-making to not only offices but students as well. In the case of the 3Doodler, the idea of 3D printing in real-time allows designers to visualize their ideas in a visceral, spatial way even during conceptualization:

3D Printing Pen Turns Sketches Into Reality In Seconds

Improved Visualization

In addition to being able to produce and test possible ideas quickly, 3D printing can recreate existing objects and conditions quickly and precisely. With less material wasted than subtractive methods like CNC routers, 3D printed context and topographical models are an effective and popular way for more accurate massing and urbanity studies:

The City of Chicago Gets 3D Printed


With the potential of 3D printing to improve traditional design methods, there has been an emergence of non-traditional methods being used to inform 3D printed projects. With 3D printing’s capability to produce non-linear geometry, it is the perfect companion to parametric design and other algorithmic methods of production.

What’s the point of all of the crazy forms that 3D printed projects seem to love?

Unlike projects constructed traditionally, 3D prints can take on wild and difficult to construct forms. While at first glance these may seem like nothing more than pandering to an architectural audience obsessed with novelty, the forms made possible by 3D printing can be many times more efficient than their counterparts. In particular, 3D printing is one of the biggest reasons that bio-mimicry (designs inspired by nature) has managed to develop so quickly in the last decade. Designers can now mimic the complexities of natural processes generated by the forms of living organisms at their micro-scale, a feat made significantly faster and easier with the advent of parametric design and 3D printing. Architects like Neri Oxman of MIT are now exploring the possibilities of this new design approach, and in the future may find ways to design more efficiently, sustainably and beautifully:

Printing 3D Buildings: Five tenets of a new kind of architecture / Neri Oxman

Not only that, but 3D printing is a naturally exciting field. Designers, engineers and critics are constantly exploring and pushing the envelope for what it may be capable of. Even projects exploring the possibility of self-constructing items and buildings are in progress – parts and conceptualizations that were previously impossible with the clumsiness of traditional construction are now possible with 3D printing:

3D Printing Moves Into the Fourth Dimension

And there are even more extreme and provocative elements to the discussion surrounding 3D printing. In the future, we may not only use animals as inspiration but as the agents for production, as explored to an extreme extent in left-of-field conceptual projects such as Geoff Manaugh and John Becker's "Animal Printheads" project:

Animal Printheads, Biomimicry and More: How Nature Will Shape the Built Environment of the Future

How does 3D printed design improve on regular design?

Simply put, 3D printing makes it possible to generate ideas that would be otherwise impossible for a human mind to produce in the same amount of time. With the use of algorithmic design to inform geometry, designers can produce forms based on ergonomics, stresses and internal functions that an object or building will have to accommodate. Not only that, but because of the seamless materiality of a 3D printed object, a single product can incorporate multiple changes in materiality to match the necessary needs at the necessary locations:

Synthesis Design + Architecture Utilizes Gradient 3-D Printing in "Durotaxis Chair"

How 3D Printing Will Change Our World (Part II)


On top of its purpose as a design tool, 3D printing has found uses in construction. By being an additive process, 3D printed projects produce significantly less waste. The lack of manpower required, as well as faster construction times is making 3D printing more and more popular for firms wishing to experiment with newer construction methods.

How will 3D printing change the way we build?

Just like in the design process, 3D printing is a versatile construction tool and has found many different uses. Being faster, cheaper and more customizable than traditional construction at a certain scale, 3D printing is enjoying experimentation as a possible solution to many of the problems that urbanity has presented.

Faster production

With the precision and reliability of a computer-operated machine, and without the limitations of human fatigue, 3D printed buildings can be constructed far faster than their traditional counterparts. Of course, the current process has its limits: 3D printers have a maximum bed size, and certain detailing needs human attention, however the market is growing, especially in countries like China that are known for both their growing urban population and willingness to experiment:

Chinese Company Constructs the World's Tallest 3D Printed Building

Chinese Company Showcases Ten 3D-Printed Houses

Housing for all

Many people pushing 3D printing technology believe that it has the potential to put cheaper, faster housing for the millions worldwide living in slums within reach. With its ability to be mass-produced and easy modularity, 3D printed projects may provide an elegant solution to the global housing crisis in the future:

Video: Housing Through the Centuries

How 3D Printing Will Change Our World

Great choice for clients

From Le Corbusier’s Domino system to the catalog housing of America in the 1920s, custom housing has long been a dream of many architects and developers. The concept of the regular consumer being able to design their own home based on modular, pre-designed parts appeals heavily to the modern lifestyle of personalization and choice, just as it has for a century or more:

Your Home by Mail: The Rise and Fall of Catalogue Housing

With 3D printing and its capability to mass-produce, new approaches to this age-old problem are surfacing. Offices like Dus Architects in Amsterdam are prototyping new modular housing systems built entirely from 3D printed parts. The firm hopes that eventually people will be able to put together their own house using a simple online program, and 3D print it in its entirety to be shipped to its destination:

First 3D Printed House to Be Built In Amsterdam

Augmentation of traditional methods

Though 3D printing has made progress as a construction method on its own, it also shines when supporting traditional construction methods. Printing unique components or setting guides for other construction are both roles suited to 3D printing. In the future, construction errors will hopefully be reduced with the help of 3D printed guides:

Archibot to Print CAD Data "Error Free" onto Construction Sites

3D printing has also more recently become capable of producing objects in different, more traditional building materials like steel and concrete. With the properties of the 3D printer, architects can commission specific, difficult to craft parts with the geometry of a 3D printed object and material properties of the necessary material:

Skanska and Foster + Partners Collaborate on World's First 3D Concrete Printing Robot

Arup Develops 3D Printing Technique for Structural Steel

What makes 3D print-based construction any better than traditional methods?

Strictly speaking, at the moment 3D print-based construction isn’t much better than traditional construction. In fact, at large scales, 3D printing rarely holds any place in construction aside from the production of custom parts. Nonetheless, the technology is developing rapidly and the benefits of 3D printing grow as more designers accept the challenge of experimentation.

Disaster response

Thanks to the seamless construction and mass-production of 3D printed objects, disaster relief is well-suited to the technology. 3D printed homes can be designed either as a single units or modular parts, printed and shipped to the locations in need of relief. Even better, with the automation of 3D printing, necessary work can be done 24/7, providing more help, faster to those who need it:

Architecture by Robots, For Humanity

On the other side, 3D printing can help prevent the need for relief in the first place. By calculating stresses placed on a building, structural members can be designed from the offset with a better resistance to disasters:

Emerging Objects Invents Earthquake-Proof 3D Printed Column


Most forms of production are “subtractive methods”. That is, they involve the removal of substance from a larger piece until the desired shape is reached. Leftover material and waste is almost inevitable with traditional production. However, additive manufacturing only uses the precise amount necessary for each product, not only saving money but reducing waste. Also unlike other construction methods which rely on a specific process for different materials, 3D printing is a process that -provided the technology continues to develop along current lines - could be undertaken with many different materials. With this in mind, architects and engineers are developing new forms of 3D printing using anything from plastic waste to bio-chemicals to sand, hoping to eliminate traditional materials that are harmful to the environment like concrete or steel:

Manifestations : The Immediate Future of 3D Printing Buildings and Materials Science

Of course, as with all arguments, there is another side. Though 3D printing may be more precise, critics claim that due to the fact that each corner and facet must be deliberately designed, it leaves much more room for incompatibility and errors, which are difficult to fix in a seamless method like 3D printing. Furthermore, critics argue that though 3D printed structures have used alternative materials in the past, by and large, 3D printed buildings use concrete, which produces the most waste of any traditional material:

Why 3D Printing Is Not As Sustainable As Its Defenders Say

In the end, it’s important to recognize 3D printing for what it is: another tool for designers to use. While it is rapidly developing, it has its limitations; conversely while it may seem flashy, it has its purposes. With further development, it may one day become the solution for many of the problems facing architecture, but even at the moment it stands as a useful tool for prototyping and development.

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Cite: AD Editorial Team. "AD Essentials: 3D Printing" 18 Jul 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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