Outsourcing or 3D printing in-house — what is the best option for architectural use?

It comes down to two things.

Whether it’s design validation, communication, functional testing or creative boosting, a model turns your project into reality and can improve your whole design process. However, handcrafting models requires multiple hours of work — some offices even have dedicated modelmakers. To quickly gain access to models as a design tool, more and more offices are turning to 3D printing. 3D printing can be done in-house or it can be outsourced — both have their benefits. So what’s the right solution for you?

It really comes down to two things. What you use 3D printing for, and how much resources you have to spare. To summarize, if you want to use your 3D printer in your design process, as a communication tool, and for final models, in-house is really the best option for you. Need only occasional, super-high quality competition models? Consider outsourcing.

Besides use, the costs need to be considered. How much does it actually cost to 3D print? And most importantly of all, how much time does it take? To sum it up, if you want to print often, cheaply and fast, you need a 3D printer. Need superior quality, have a lot of resources to spare, and don’t need to print that often? Outsource. We’ve gone through the differences in more detail below.

How much time do you have to spare?

The ownership of technical tools like 3D printers often seems like a hassle to introduce in existing processes. The benefits of having a 3D printer can be outweighed by the time it consumes — time spent setting up, pre-processing and doing maintenance on the printer is off the time spent on more important tasks.

While leading architectural offices such as Foster + Partners have already recognized the benefits of 3D printing and implemented it successfully, many still think that only large offices have the time and dedicated personnel to introduce 3D printing into their daily work. This is a misconception — today, there are 3D printers designed to be so effortless to use that they actually save you time, enabling anyone to use them. The printers today have evolved tremendously from the high maintenance ones they used to be.

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The time spent modelling is obviously the same whether you outsource or print in-house. The difference is when your model is ready to print. When outsourcing, you send the files to the external provider, and you can expect a ready model in a few days to some weeks. When you print in-house, you send the file to the printer, and have your model ready in a few hours to a few days.

This is assuming that everything went perfectly. If however there were some design flaws, the process might take double the time when outsourcing, as communication with external partners always takes some time. When printing in-house you can spot and correct the flaw immediately, and reprint on the spot. Some printers even warn you of design mistakes beforehand so that it doesn’t even start printing if the software spots a flaw, preventing print failure.

As long as using the printer is easy and fast, you save time when you 3D print in-house. However, not all printers are effortless to use. Printers are complex technical devices, and typically require configuring, calibration and maintenance. When outsourcing, you don’t have to think about those things. Unless the printer calibrates, configures and maintains itself.. Which is soon possible.

How much money are you able to spend?

A model printed at an external provider can cost from several hundred euros for a simple design to thousands of euros for a more complex model. Stratasys claims that this makes it about three to five times more expensive than if that model were printed in-house. However, we calculated that the cost of prints can actually be as low 2–15 euros per model, depending on the amount of filament used. That makes the cost per model a fraction of an outsourced one.

However, with outsourcing there is no initial investment of buying the device itself. 3D printers cost from a few thousand euros to tens of thousands of euros for the industrial ones, and the initial investment can sting. However, that’s exactly what it is; an investment.

To the benefit of the user, competition in the 3D printer market today is fierce, and today’s affordable 3D printers provide astounding quality for their cost. Especially in architecture, where the models are not usually supposed to withstand much continuous use, a quality consumer 3D printer does the job perfectly — you can get a good one for 3000–5000 euros.

So unless you print about 1 model per year or two, an in-house 3D printer beats outsourcing when considering costs. Creating your models with an in-house 3D printer brings a significant cost saving even if you plan to print just two models per month — and even more significant benefits if more.

3D printing as a part of the design process

If you want to use 3D printing as a part of your continuous design process, there really is no other option than to get yourself a printer. The flexibility it provides is uncontested.

Cost-wise it’s a no-brainer. For example, if you’d want to 3D print massing studies, the cost of printing 10 studies might be as much as a thousand euros outsourced. You’re better off just shaping your models out of paper money with that cost. 3D printing allows you to print a variety of simple models at a material cost as low as 2 euros. Time-wise, do you have the time to wait a week for your studies to arrive? Or would you prefer them this afternoon? We thought so.

An in-house 3D printer encourages you to create more models already in earlier stages. You don’t have to limit your design process to just one optimum model at the end but instead you can utilize models in every stage of your design process. Create models for every iteration of your design to validate and communicate your ideas early in the project, and prevent tiring and repetitive redesigning. Having in-house 3D printing capabilities offers significant benefits for the entire architectural design cycle.

3D printing as a communication tool

The communication benefits of models are numerous — we’ve discussed a few of them in this article. Models quickly communicate design concepts and allow people from different backgrounds to easily comprehend a project, making everything just generally easier with clients, colleagues and constructors. Physical models enable everyone to grasp a concept intuitively, regardless of architectural understanding.

Again, it’s time and money that you need to consider in this case. When producing models for clients, the cost is billed from them — how many clients are willing to spend hundreds of euros on a single model? Maybe a final one, but what about the ones used for testing and iteration? When the cost of a model can be as low as a few euros, you’re happy to provide your client with a model at every stage of the process, adding value with minimal cost. That in turn results in happier clients.

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An in-house 3D printer enables quicker feedback loops. You probably don’t have the time to put a project on hold for a week to wait for a model to arrive, just to have your client want a few changes done, only to kick off the whole process again. It’s such a hassle that at that point you’d probably just skip the model part altogether.

If you want to use 3D printing as a communication tool, there really is no question. Get yourself a 3D printer.

3D printing final designs

If you do not use 3D printing in your design process or as a communication tool, you might want to consider outsourcing. Many order a model from a service provider at advanced stages of the design process, when a model of the highest quality is required, and the time spent waiting for it doesn’t matter that much anymore.

Even consumer 3D printers today provide excellent quality, smoothness and precision. But naturally, when only the best goes, professional 3D printing services do know their stuff. When outsourcing you can take advantage of industrial level printers without having to do the hard work yourself. You know the catch though: it is not cheap. If you only need models quite rarely (once or twice per year) and require only the best possible quality, outsourcing might be the best option for you.

When accuracy is needed

For many projects, accuracy cannot be compromised. Many rely on external providers when superior quality that comes from industrial printers is expected. However, nowadays quality consumer 3D printers are able to provide functional and visual accuracy. They can print the smallest features, finest details and smoothest surfaces — some printers allow you to choose accuracy over print speed. So even though producing detailed, high-quality prints in-house takes a bit more time than rough ones, they still take considerably less time than when outsourced.

All in all, both outsourcing and printing in-house have their benefits. The return on investment with an in-house 3D printer is typically fast, even when outsourced modeling in your office is low-volume. The investment today can become a significant long-term advantage in your architectural career through saved time, improved designs and reduced costs. However, those benefits are realized only when your 3D printer is effortless and fast to use.

When only the best possible quality goes and time is no issue, outsourcing might be the solution for you. Check out Shapeways and Materialise for great service providers!

Are you curious to start your new architectural projects with 3D printing but you have still questions or concerns? Talk to us! We’re currently developing a 3D printer for architects — Follow us on Facebook or sign up for notifications on our development.

Julio Tiusanen