Digital Details

In the hands of NRI, a leading fabrication service, 3-D printing is a finely honed craft.

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In addition to working with 350 clients in New York alone, NRI maintains machines and technicians in-house at the architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF). Above, NRI’s Frank Medina cleans up a model at KPF.

All photos courtesy John Chu/Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, unless otherwise noted

First things first: The term “3-D printing” is a misnomer according to Arthur Young-Spivey, the digital fabrication specialist at NRI—a 116-year-old, New York–headquartered supplier of reprographic services to architects and their tradespeople. “The correct term is ‘additive manufacturing,’” he explains. “People call it 3-D printing because it enables you to wrap your head around it, but in some ways it’s confusing.”

Young-Spivey has a point, as the process by which a digital file is converted into an object isn’t “printing” in the commonly understood sense of applying pigment on a substrate. With 3-D printing, he says, “Instead of using paper, you’re printing with powder or plastics. It’s all one layer at a time.” The thinner the layer, the better the quality, and the longer the process takes. “And there’s always post-production processing, to clean up the model,” he adds. “That’s why ‘additive manufacturing’ is a more accurate description.”

Second point: The printer matters less than the file from which a model is created. Indeed, says Young-Spivey, mastery of the diabolically difficult software remains key to producing a great result. “3-D software is complicated—understanding the subtle nuances of  the different tools in a program, so that you can achieve a specific outcome—and to learn it takes years,” he says. “Moving parts, integrated pieces, tolerancing, accounting for shrinkage or expansion, even stress analyses—all of  these are considerations when you’re putting a design into a computer.”

This is not to minimize the importance of  the printers, which have their own degrees of complexity. “We have multiple ones from different vendors,” Young-Spivey observes, walking me past standard- and high-resolution machines that print in ABS plastic, polyjet UV-cured liquid, and powder in NRI’s Manhattan loft space. “We want to achieve certain looks and different results.” These include multiple colors, patterns and textures, and finishes ranging from the hard and opaque to the flexible and translucent. “You can even be representative,” he says. “If you’re doing an analysis of how wind circulates around a building, you can print it as part of the model.”

The process of lifting a finished print out of NRI’s ZPrinter 650. 

Multicolor 3-D printing can model complex MEP systems, as in this NRI model.

Courtesy NRI

And there is a fourth component: 3-D scanning. “Often it’s the only way to take something from the real world and put it in the computer,” Young-Spivey  says. When I express puzzlement as to its value, he explains that a sculptor could model a head in clay, scan it into software, insert digital designs into the skull, then print out the enhanced object. “That would be very difficult, if not impossible, to do by hand,” he says. Entire rooms can be scanned as well, a benefit to interior designers presenting plans to clients.

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