20 February 2009
Let’s get physical, physical... rapid prototyping helps bring your projects to life
Computer models can only ever go so far in communicating an architect’s vision. For communication to a broad audience, the appeal of an architectural model is undeniable. With the development of new techniques in rapid prototyping, the ability to create physical objects from computer models offers one way of making it real.
Rapid prototyping technology is a specialist resource but one that is increasingly available. Service providers are likely to use a variety of 3D printing machines which use different technologies and consequently offer different possibilities.
Z-Corporation (www.zcorp.com) makes 3D printers that spray glue through inkjet heads on to a bed of powdered plaster or starch. Direct from the machine objects have a fine, snowy, plaster-like appearance, but being fragile are usually impregnated with a resin on completion. Cyan, magenta and yellow glues can be used to create full colour models, but do not expect accurate colour rendering.
Objet Polymerjet equipment (www.objet.com) creates objects by building up layers of resin which are cured by ultraviolet light. Different resins can be used to create objects that have a high degree of finish, are opaque or translucent, and can be as hard as nylon or as pliable as rubber.
3D Systems’ (www.3dsystems.com) stereolithography apparatus (SLA) uses ultraviolet lasers to "draw" in 3D into a bath of liquid resin to form the model. The results are clear plastic or white plastic models encased in a disposable soft scaffold medium, which when removed leaves a high- quality finish. The materials do yellow with age. In the case of the white models, this can be circumvented by treating the finished object with a liquid-based dye.
3D systems and Eos (www.eos.info) make laser-sintering machines that use lasers to fuse powdered materials into solid objects. Laser-fused powdered metal can be used by Eos’s machines to form high-quality, low-strength metal components similar in quality to die-cast white metal.
For a high degree of control over the quality of the finished object, Solidscape’s machines (www.solid-scape.com) create very high-resolution wax patterns which are then used with conventional casting techniques to produce models in a variety of materials.
Solid metal models can be made directly by Arcam machines (www.arcam.com) that use electron beams to fuse titanium particles. Out of the machine, the objects are quite rough and need machine-finishing, but the objects are stronger than a similar object made by a traditional hot-casting technique.
Mcor (www.mcortechnologies.com) make a clever and cost-effective machine that, loaded up with a ream of A4 paper and a PVA-based glue, can make models that look and feel as though they might have been milled from solid MDF.
The physical model is built direct from a computer model in the STL file format available in all common 3D cad packages. The accuracy and integrity of the computer modelling work is critical, however. Specialist software such as MiniMagics (www.materialise.com) can be used to help check the STL file.
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