3d printers

Renzo Piano architects show how they use 3D printers » 3dpbm

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Genoese architect Renzo Piano is one of the most famous architects in the world and his company, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), is responsible for dozens of the most prestigious projects in many countries.

The firm permanently employs approximately 110 architects as well as 30 other support staff, including 3D visualization artists, model makers, archivists, administrative and secretarial staff. Scale models are an essential part of an architect’s workflow and 3D printing has dramatically changed the way these models are made. Formlabs recently revealed that the studio uses a Form 3 SLA 3D printeramong other systems.

Francesco Terranova and Dimitri Lange, two model makers at RPBW, make hundreds of large and small scale models to test different proposals. Often, architects make changes directly to models, which they can then reproduce in CAD. Every few weeks, clients also come to the firm for an update on projects, where models play a crucial role in helping to make updates tangible.

The Form 3 3D printer used in Renzo Piano’s workshop

“Our models change every day or even every hour. Because architects change the project very quickly, most of the time we don’t have enough time to do it by hand. Therefore, we need to find a way to do it faster,” Terranova said.

Model makers use a combination of traditional tools for making models by hand as well as digital tools such as 3D printers, CNC milling machines and laser cutters to create various parts. 3D printing is considered ideal for geometries that are difficult to make by hand, such as spheres and curved surfaces.

“We made models for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. It’s shaped like a pressed sphere,” Terranova revealed. “This museum has changed, I think, hundreds of times. Every day we had to redo another model, modifying it a little compared to the previous one. The only way to do it so quickly was to 3D print it. What’s nice is that you can run the printer overnight, and when you come back in the morning, you find the model done. This way we don’t waste time during the day.

Renzo Piano
The Form 3 allows architects to print precise models of trees

Six years ago, the Renzo Piano studio, like many others, started with a powder-based machine using binder jetting technology (the 660 series from 3D Systems which uses a technology called color jet printing or CJP). However, the limestone material used for this type of printer is very delicate and can be damaged by humidity. The company then upgraded to a Form 2 (which costs about 1/20 of the CJP system and leverages laser stereolithography) while adding a high-end material jet 3D printer from 3D Systems (which also prints resin but the done with a more advanced inkjet head). Terranova also said they have a small filament extrusion 3D printer that works with thermoplastics such as PLA and ABS.

“What we really appreciate with Formlabs machines is the solidity and resistance of the material, but also the precision of the models. Formlabs resins, once printed, are very easy to sand. This is a very good thing because we still need to paint the model. Even though we use White Resin, the white is not exactly the same as what we use with our models. We actually have to paint the model made with 3D printers and also the rest of the model made with CNC machines and other tools. So it’s very helpful that we can sand it easily,” Terranova said.

More recently, the studio also upgraded its Form 2 to Formlabs’ all-new Form 3 SLA printer, which allowed it to print some of the most complex models, while saving time on post-processing.

“The trees were a big problem because they are very fragile, very thin. We tried to do it with the Form 2 [and the other printers, but they’d break]. With the Form 3 we don’t have the same problem and it allows us to 3D print trees. Removing supports with the Form 3 also seems easier because we can use smaller supports,” said Terranova.