Three-dimensional printing has been around since the 1980s, and equipment sales have grown at a 7.1 percent clip over the past five years to an estimated $1.4 billion in 2011, according to IBIS World, which projects low double-digit annualized growth through 2016.
But residential architects and designers have been slow to embrace this technology, says Scott Harmon, vice president of business development for Z Corp., a 16-year-old manufacturer based in Burlington, Mass. “You have to be designing it in ‘real’ 3D, and few housing architects had been doing that. But now, more and more are using 3D tools.”
A Z Corp. printer created from design files a 28-by-21-inch 3D model of a colonial house in Bedford, Mass., that the television program This Old House was renovating this fall. The model allowed viewers to see how the house looked before and after sections were added, and the model’s roof could be “removed” to show interior rooms.
This is how the process works, explains Harmon: The printer breaks down a computer-generated 3D drawing into cross sections, and then stacks layers of fine powder, 4/1000th of an inch thick, onto a flat surface. A liquid binding agent holds the layers together to create what the finished product is supposed to look like. “If you find mistakes early in the design process, they are a lot easier to fix,” says Harmon.
The maximum size of a model is defined by the printer’s build chamber. Z Corp.’s largest chamber is 10 by 15 by 28 inches, but the company has created larger models with 25 separate pieces (the Bedford model had 14). Z Corp. prices its equipment from $15,000 to $60,000, so Harmon believes most consumers will experience this technology through servicers such as i.materialize, “which can print stuff for a few hundred bucks.”
As more consumers become familiar with the technology, its application for designing homes could expand, he believes. “Builders that want to differentiate themselves are going to embrace it.” Indeed, he sees “real opportunities in the sales process” for builders that invest in this equipment to create “explodable” models that show prospects the features of the house within.