Modeling Metropolitan Miami

27 Sep, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

3D printing technology gains momentum in architectural prototyping

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It was a typical tropical day in Miami, Florida. Rafael Tapanes had just delivered the Lancaster Plaza, a Mediterranean-style condo complex, to his client. Impressed by the fast turnaround and modest cost, the client returned the next day to ask if Tapanes could create 100 more. "Sure," said Tapanes. "Give me two days."

Before that, a frazzled real estate developer had approached Tapanes with a rush order: Raise a swanky tower crowned with penthouses in the middle of the Metropolitan Miami area, or The Met, as locals call it. It took Tapanes a mere two weeks to put the tower where it belongs.

Tapanes isn't Superman. He just happens to own a 3D printer.

The Realization Group
Tapanes owns and operates The Realization Group, a service bureau for architects, engineers and builders. In the beginning, the firm produced computer simulation models and animations for clients. Over the years, the company began creating physical massing models using in-house laser cutting or outside stereolithography services -- both costly and time-consuming methods. Last year, as he searched for more cost-effective model-making options, Tapanes began looking into 3D printers. By the time The Met's developer walked through the door, Tapanes was ready to put his newly acquired technology -- Z Corporation's ZPrinter 310 Plus -- to the test.

The Met, described by its creators as "a vibrant, diverse mix of fabulous urban life," is made up of three distinct towers and a four-story, atrium-style entertainment complex,  confined to a city block encircled by cultural attractions, all on the shoulder of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Realization Group was contracted to produce a model of the development cluster for the developer's sales office. Tapanes fulfilled the order using laser cutting. To hear Tapanes describe it, the result was a work of art: "The model contains colored Plexiglas. The surfaces are shiny and when it's lit from inside, you can see the light through the units," he says.

Then something unexpected happened.

"The developer had the second building changed -- completely redesigned," recalls Tapanes. "And they'd have to go to the city commission meeting in two weeks. "The schedule didn't leave sufficient time to build the new tower with laser cutting. "If we were to make a new laser-cut plastic model, we would have to recalculate all of its geometry," he explains. And the unusual curvatures of the tower would further complicate the process. The only remaining option was to produce the redesigned tower using the ZPrinter 310 Plus and incorporate it into the existing laser-cut sales office model of the entire project.

"We showed [the client] what ZPrinter could do, explained to him what it was, and he was fascinated, so he gave us the green light," Tapanes continues. It was intended to be a quick fix -- produced under pressure, as it were. But, "The client never came back to order the laser-cut model replacement afterward," Tapanes notes, and in fact went on to replace a second tower with a model produced using the ZPrinter.

When a last-minute design overhaul in the Metropolitan Miami project prompted a meeting with local authorities, The Realization Group, an architectural visualization firm, used Z Corporation's 3D printing technology to create substitute prototypes for the developer.  Tower 2 (right) and later Tower 3 (left) -- originally produced as laser-cut prototypes -- were created using the ZPrinter. The models in the back are original laser-cut renditions.

The ZPrinter 310 Plus used by Tapanes is bundled with Z Corporation's proprietary software to process solid models in STL, VRML and PLY file formats. Running on Microsoft Windows NT, 2000 Professional and XP Professional, the software features 3D viewing, text labeling and scaling.

Photorealistic Surface Details
"We've seen an uptake of this technology, especially in the AEC market, as it becomes more mainstream," says Roger Kelesoglu, director of customer development at Z Corporation. "The new-generation technology -- such as the Spectrum Z510 or its Contex counterpart DESIGNmate Cx -- provides higher resolution and color capability that allows architects, engineers and designers who have always loved physical models to get what they need faster."

In July 2005, 3D printing technology provider Z Corporation and Contex Scanning Technology merged. Since then, Z Corporation's 3D printers have become available under the Contex brand. "Z Corp.'s technology is based on off-the-shelf inkjet printer technology," explains Kelesoglu. "It actually has an off-the-shelf print head inside. It takes advantage of the millions of investment dollars that have gone into developing and refining inkjet printing technology."

Virtual vs. Reality
Virtual 3D computer models are prevalent in architectural design today, but they'll never eliminate the need for physical prototypes, according to Kelesoglu. "Architects are using the computer all day," he observes. "So they understand the navigation buttons, the rotations and so on, so they can inspect the virtual model with no problem. But at a design review with the zoning board or at a bid meeting, when they're trying to convince the authorities or the client that their design is the right design, they don't want to rely on the zoning authority's or the prospective client's computer proficiency."

The Spectrum Z510, Kelesoglu says, offers the highest resolution in 3D printing: 24-bit color printing at 600x540 dpi. He admits, "I've seen some stunning architectural models that come out of the latest printers that previous-generation printers wouldn't be able to produce."

Railings, trusses, windowsills and other types of details previously achievable only in hand-crafted models or costly stereolithography models can now be created with 3D printing, Kelesoglu points out. The same technology also allows Z Corporation printers to print JPEG-type images on model surfaces. Consider, for instance, a project incorporating a mural. If the muralist is able to deliver a digital scan of his or her mural concept to the architect, the architect can make that image part of the building façade. The 3D prototype printed from the architectural data will then include a faithful representation of the mural -- something even makers of hand-crafted models would have a hard time reproducing.

Tolerance for Incorrectly Formatted Data
A prototype can only be as good as the source data. And the source data that Tapanes receives is often less than ideal, due to his clients' relative inexperience with 3D printing. "The data that they give me has to meet certain conditions," he warns. "Often, an architect who likes to draft plans and elevations in real-world dimensions might try to scale down the entire model for me." That seemingly harmless approach of shrinking a model, he says, can create big headaches in the printing process. Unfortunately, there's no simple answer, no foolproof rule of thumb. Each project requires a unique approach. For that, The Realization Group offers consultation services.

For more on this topic, read Cadalyst's GIS Tech News #14, "Marriage of Inconvenience."

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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