'Free 3D printing' sign printed on the 3D printer installed in Arup's London office.

+ Designers are growing accustomed to fast iteration. Desktop 3D printers are moving us closer to immediate iteration in the physical realm.

3D printing can make us better designers and foster better collaboration during the design process. 

With all the hype about 3D printing at the moment, you could be forgiven for thinking it is a new technology. In fact, it has been around since at least 1985, albeit under the guise of ‘rapid prototyping’. 

So what is it? 3D printing is a design platform. It is a system of rules explicitly coded by designers that can then be built (or ‘printed’) by purpose-built machines. I am particularly excited by 3D printing because of its potential to free designers from the constraints of mass production and mechanical ways of thinking, leading to greater creativity. 

Better designers

In the digital world, designers are growing accustomed to fast iteration. Desktop 3D printers move us a step closer to real-time 3D printing that allows immediate iteration in the physical realm.

The ability to discard a 3D print and start afresh takes us closer to the ‘undo’ functionality in the digital world, removing the preciousness from the process of physical creation. Indeed, it does away with the need to distinguish between sketch and presentation models – all models can now be presentation quality.

I recently saw some of the benefits of near real-time 3D printing first-hand when Arup’s Foresight and Innovation team (which I’m part of) gave some of our design colleagues the opportunity to try 3D printing at their desks. The result? 32 designs printed in the first month – quickly dispelling any concerns we had about the smell and noise from the machines putting the designers off.

And what was really interesting was that all the designers who took part identified a distinct value in seeing an almost immediate physical manifestation of their designs. Seeing and feeling their work in a physical form at any stage of the design process gave them fresh, invaluable feedback leading to faster, more accurate iterations.

For example, one of the designs I printed last summer was a model of two boulders to be balanced on top of each other as part of an art installation. Using the printed model, I was able to work out how to balance the full-sized boulders almost immediately.

Better collaboration

If 3D printing is valuable for designers, I think it’s equally useful for collaborating in a project team. Another design printed last summer was for an air handling unit. This is something that would normally be marked symbolically on plans, so a printed model would enable architects to think more carefully about this element of the design.

Ours is a physical world, and although digitisation and virtualisation have improved the way we work, I believe sometimes people engage much more readily with physical models. Think how much easier it is to understand a design when you can flip a physical model of it around to see what it looks like from every angle.

Project teams with members in different countries could also see huge improvements in collaborative working by using 3D printing. Models shared online could be printed locally. Not only could they see and hear what their remote colleagues are talking about, they could quite literally feel it as well.

Not so long ago, I suggested that Arup should replace some of its meeting rooms with 3D printing rooms. At the time, it was considered a bit provocative, but perhaps it’s time to resurrect that idea. What do you think?