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3D printing and AI are becoming more crucial to architecture

Design’s Changing Technology Landscape

26
April
2019
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Architecture
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3D Printing

Modern architecture firms face unique challenges regarding which technological products, assets, and tools to utilize in order to impress clients, attract personnel, and remain current with competition. The linear progression of technology within architecture has splintered off into a variety of niche skillsets, interests, and at times, separate professions. The drafting generation set aside their circle templates and 2H pencils to transition to AutoCAD. The AutoCAD generation froze their layers and detached their X-Ref’s to transition to Building Information Modeling (BIM). The current BIM generation has come to a fork in the road with an abundance of potential paths. 3D printing technologies and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been paving two of those paths for a few decades, becoming more and more prevalent with each passing year.

For centuries, manufacturing processes have been built on subtractive manufacturing. Whether milling, sculpting, machining, molding, or forming, subtractive manufacturing makes objects smaller until the desired product is achieved. 3D printing is a product of additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing adds layer upon layer of material, whether the material is plastic, metal, concrete, resin, or in some experimental settings human tissue, earth, and even food. Basic components of 3D printing include the machine or unit, the material, and the software. Because the material choices are numerous and growing, the applications of 3D printing also grow each day. 

According to 3DInsider’s “Beginner’s Guide to 3D printing”, the rapid growth and improvements to 3D printing technology have benefitted many trades and professions. Defense, aerospace, and automotive industries can manufacture complex and lightweight parts and models of their designs. Some people have used 3D printers to create obsolete auto parts in order to maintain their vehicles. Education fields can utilize 3D printing for visualizations and design initiatives for art classes. In post-secondary education it is used by numerous disciplines of study for research purposes.

Manufacturing and healthcare have helped push 3D printing technology. Due to the sustainable nature of 3D printing regarding material usage and waste, manufacturing has helped to advance the technology and used it to  create models of products before they are manufactured. 3D printing is also used to achieve a faster product development cycle and design troubleshooting. Similar processes are used in healthcare regarding mock-ups and models. Healthcare is advancing 3D printing by being very experimental. A number of working organs have been created and multitudes of research is conducted daily. We inch closer each day to a time when transplant organs could easily be printed.

In Architecture, like other industries, 3D printing utilizes the technology in part to expedite certain processes. Whether developing physical models more quickly or visualizing trade coordination, 3D printing is proving to be quite valuable to architects and designers. A 3D model can be produced for a client presentation one day,  changes can be made to the computer model the next day, and another 3D print can be produced the day after for the client. The sustainability of the technology also makes it appealing to designers. The material used offers no waste because of the additive process it takes to make it, saving valuable time and money towards architectural modelling costs. No longer will you need to painstakingly cut layers of stock to represent landscape, as a 3D model can produce a smooth topography with accuracy. Entire urban blocks can be produced for context at a fraction of the time it would take to produce the same model by hand.

A recent article by 3DUniverse discusses that in addition to design review, the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industries can employ 3D printing technology for structure verification, reverse-engineering via 3D scans, and diagrammatic models that can be used for evaluation, testing, and validation by multi-disciplinary teams during construction. In architecture, the potential for 3D printing is limitless.

3D printing is becoming more and more popular as a result of artificial intelligence’s (AI’s) expanding role in design professions. AIA contributor Kathleen M. O’Donnell writes, “there is a growing sense that if architectural firms do not incorporate AI into practice, they will get left behind.” O’Donnell continues to explain that construction and software companies are incorporating AI more quickly than architecture firms, leaving them with a key decision to make in the near future: adapt and catch up or get left behind. Although AI will never replace human designers, it is important to understand the potential equilibrium that can be reached between the two. AI will never be able to comprehend the idiosyncrasies of human behavior, but it can understand the raw data that drives the design process, especially early on during programming and schematic design. This is where the equilibrium lies. The designer collaborates with the owner and design team to understand adjacencies and program shapes, sizes, and their components. AI can help to weed out solutions that do not conform to the data produced by the designer, therefore saving valuable time and energy. By coming up with three to five designs that conform to every project variable, architects can efficiently and confidently present viable options to the client in a short amount of time.  

AI begins with and ends with Big Data. Data gathering should be done early and often in the design process. By maintaining a vast database of project-specific information, you have answers to many of the questions that occur during the design process. You also have plenty of information to integrate into AI and data-driven design processes. Data can be obtained and stored in common and user-friendly formats, such as an Excel spreadsheet. On its own, Revit is an information database. AI integration permits the transfer of Revit data back and forth to programs such as Excel using Dynamo. AI allows designers to grasp the full potential of programs, such as Revit, in order to make the design process as efficient as possible.

Embracing AI in architecture not only produces more efficient designs and design schedules, but it could also help produce more sophisticated designs. Parametric design is rooted in AI and continues to develop as firms become more familiar with the capabilities of AI and data-driven design. Dynamo and Grasshopper, built-in visual programming tools for Revit and Rhino respectively, are the leading software for architects and designers to begin experimenting with AI. Investigating these tools and understanding their potential is the first step in automating monotonous or segmented tasks. By doing so, you can make tasks faster, easier, and, most importantly, enhance productivity.

Data obtained can also be used in plug-in tools for modelling programs. For example, a site address and massing model can turn into a sophisticated climate analysis tool tracking solar paths, resulting shadows, and wind direction. Parametrically designed facades can undergo load impact studies to discover important stresses and forces not totally realized in an ultra-complex design. Clashing studies can occur to determine potential conflicts that may occur in construction between architectural and mechanical elements. With AI, as with most other technologies, it is important to start small and with purpose. These tools are all fascinating on their own, but if they do not serve your firm’s immediate purposes, they may not be worth pursuing at that time. If these technologies are implemented strategically and with purpose, they are more impactful and should spark more interest and development.

Artificial Intelligence is impacting buildings and urban environments almost seamlessly. Whether enhancing 3D printing technologies or enabling robotics for manufacturing and construction, AI continues to make design and construction processes more efficient and productive. Our homes are becoming smarter, allowing thermal and lighting manipulation via Bluetooth. Our streetlights are sensing traffic patterns and car flow and adjusting to trends on the fly. Our buildings are tracking utility usage and reporting raw data to improve efficiency and sustainability. The opportunities for AI integration and technological advancements in design firms are plentiful. However, they should be pursued strategically and methodically for the most impactful results. In this way, our clients, users, and developing professionals can benefit the most.