3D Printing Can Empower Landscape Architects

3d printing
3D printer / Gigaom

Landscape architects can bypass contractors and participate directly in the fabrication and manufacturing of all sorts of objects like benches or even pavers, if they are confident enough to delve into 3D modeling and 3D printing, said Scott Bishop, ASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and John Pacyga, ASLA, Verdant Design, at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver. “This can really disrupt the product development process. We can now actually make products the way we want,” said Pacyga. With 3D printing, landscape architects can both enable new forms, leaving the old standardized ones in the past, and begin building.

Multiple technologies are found under the umbrella term “3D printing.” There is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), also sometimes known as FFF, which involves turning wires of plastic into forms. This is the most common and popular 3D printer technology out there. Then, there’s stereolithography printers, which are slow at creating models but offer an incredible level of detail. With this technology, resin is turned into a solid form. “You start with a sort of pot of goo,” said Pacyga. There’s also selective laser sintering, which uses a laser to melt materials into a form, as well as CJP/3DP, which adds up thin paper or powder layers. Any excess is broken off to reveal the form.

FDM printers can be either desktop machines, which run from $500 to $4,000, or industrial size printers, which are found at 3D printing centers, now found in most major cities. A good desktop printer for a landscape architectural office could run $1,500 to $2,500. Pacyga cautioned that you really get what you pay for so it’s worthwhile to invest in a good one, which can be found in Make magazine’s annual consumer report released in the fall. Pacyga also noted the real expense of these tools is staff time spent “calibrating and maintaining them.” If you need to send a job to a 3D printing center, an average job can take 2 weeks to a month to do, so “plan ahead,” said Pacyga. The cost can range from $16 to $22 per cubic inch. Prices are calculated either according to volume or on a time and materials basis.

All these technologies, Bishop said, enable landscape architects to communicate with clients and stakeholders about their ideas in a more compelling way. “It’s one thing to fly through a 3D model and another to let them see what we want to make.” 3D printed models can also demonstrate the value of an iterative design process. For their Plaza at Harvard University, which includes innovative ergonomic, custom-designed benches, Stoss used 3D printed models to create one idea, then four, and then eight, followed by a range of iterations to show the “formal language” of their bench designs. The eventual models they created in Rhino were sent straight to the fabricator to prototype and then the manufacturer. “There was no construction documents and no middle man.”

plaza
Plaza at Harvard University / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

For Erie Street Plaza in Milwaukee, Stoss created models of a novel paving pattern and delivered that straight to Wausau Pavers, who then created a steel mold for the 60,000 square feet of pavers they needed for the plaza. Using 3D printing for the paver design was important because the steel mold alone cost more than $100,000.

erie
Erie Street Plaza / Stoss Landscape Urbanism

Pacyga said Rhino or Sketchup works great for creating 3D models that can then be turned into models to be fed into a 3D printer. However, landscape architects will first need to ensure their 3D print model is “manifold and watertight before sending to the printer.” This means that if you, theoretically, put water inside your model, there would be no leaks. In practice, this mean “everything must have a depth.” Pacyga recommended using Cleanup3, Solid Inspector, or SUsolid.com, services that analyze your models to find any “dangling lines or holes.”

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