Scale Models from Thin Air
by B.J. Novitski
Some day in the next millennium, architects may be able to put design information into a machine that will automatically construct a complete building. Hints of this distant future are visible in the experiments of Japanese construction companies, in which robots assemble building components in the field. Already the idea is being implemented, albeit at a much smaller scale, with a new family of technologies called rapid prototyping. This enables designers to build physical models directly and automatically from 3D computer models.
The dozen varieties of rapid prototyping devices create models by building up thin horizontal layers of a particular material. They all require 3D CAD data translated to the STL format, named after stereolithography, the original rapid prototyping technology. STL files are most easily created from 3D solid modelers, the digital equivalent of modeling clay.
Rapid prototyping is commonplace in the design of automobiles and consumer products. Industrial designers in these fields routinely use 3D solid modeling systems such as Pro/ENGINEER and SolidWorks to describe components, objects, and entire assemblies that curve in three dimensions. Such 3D modeling, however, is still rare in architecture firms. The architectural solid modeler form-Z is only beginning to make inroads in mainstream architectural practice where 2D drafting is well entrenched.
To architects who typically work in 2D to design buildings with square corners and vertical walls, such modeling may seem overly complicated. But 3D solid modeling is virtually mandatory for creating good STL files. Architects willing to learn one of these 3D modeling systems can take advantage of rapid prototyping technologies to build physical models with their CAD data.
A Key West prototype house built with "selective laser sintering." Despite its size and delicacy, the model is sturdy and detailed.
Photo: Reelization, Inc.
Architect Kevin Chaite Rotheroe designs metal structures of complex shapes, modeled here using several rapid prototyping technologies.
Photo: Kevin Chaite Rotheroe
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