What materials can you actually 3D print?

Hint: it’s not just plastic.

The choice of material is one of the main components of the design of an architectural project, affecting both practical, functional and aesthetic aspects. When creating scale models during the design process, the material used to make the model should ideally reflect the material that will be used for the building itself. When building models by hand the choice of material is pretty flexible. However, when 3D printing models, white plastic is the only option. Or is it?

3D printing technology has actually developed to a point where the variety of printable materials is surprisingly broad. The advanced industrial printers today can print plastic, ceramic, metal and paper. But for non-industrial usage plastic is still the most widely used material. However, the plastic used for 3D printing, or filament, comes in so many finishes and colours that the options are more diverse than ever. Besides a rainbow of colours, your desktop 3D printer is able to print wood, glass and metal replications that are so advanced that you wouldn’t even notice the difference from the real thing.

 Yes, this is actually plastic. Filament from  Fillamentum .

Yes, this is actually plastic. Filament from Fillamentum.

Besides the variety of colours and finishes, the properties of plastic as a material are often questioned. Plastic is commonly seen as an environmentally harmful and a cheap material — that’s because a variety of plastics are exactly that. There is a more ecological alternative though: PLA or poly lactic acid is derived most often from sugarcane or corn starch and is 100% biodegradable. In addition, it does not emit that plasticky smell when printed. We discuss the properties of each of them in this blog post, and consider what’s the most optimal filament for architects.

So while the most common material for desktop 3D printers is indeed plastic — it’s gone way beyond the traditional view of the material both in terms of environmental friendliness and the variety of finishes. Manufacturers such as Fillamentum are continuously improving the formulations of traditional PLA and have developed advanced PLA blends to create new colours and gradients. PLA can also be mixed with wood, brick, bronze, brass, or stainless steel, resulting in new materials that are easy to print like plastic, but have the aesthetic properties of the other materials.

Plastic doesn't always need to look like plastic

Plastic is often seen as a material that lacks elegance, especially when compared to wood, glass or metal. Plastic as a finish rarely conveys an architect’s imagination of design and its materials. The same applies for creating scale models in design process — According the feedback we’ve received from architects, plastic 3D printed models often seem monotonous. Sectioning the model with just colours instead of different materials just does not communicate the interplay of textures. However, with the advanced filaments of today, wood and even glass can be emulated to an astonishing degree.

Glass with the flexibility of plastic

Glass is and will always be a crucial material used in architecture — glass is a material that can change the whole feel of a building. When creating scale models, portraying glass fixtures in non-transparent plastic can undermine the whole communication aspect of the model. When creating models by hand, transparent plastic sheets are often used to portray glass. Another way to imitate glass is by using thicker transparent plastic and cut it with a CNC machine. However, CNC machines are costly investments, and so models requiring thicker transparent plastic need to be often outsourced.

 Model composed of cut transparent plastic boards. Blur hotel by Studio Pei-Zhu in Beijing, China. Image from  World Architecture News .

Model composed of cut transparent plastic boards. Blur hotel by Studio Pei-Zhu in Beijing, China. Image from World Architecture News.

There is an easier way to accomplish glass-like finishes — crystal clear PLA or ABS. This transparent plastic is usable for all most common desktop 3D printers. You can either print only specific structures in glass-like plastic or your whole model easily, quickly and accurately. While the finish is incredibly glass-like, the material retains the malleability of plastic.

 Image from  3D Forms .

Image from 3D Forms.

Print wood effortlessly

Wood radiates natural beauty, and is environmentally friendly as well as sustainable. Wooden architecture is particularly prominent in Scandinavia — check out Löyly Sauna or Kamppi Chapel for a few examples for the modern usage of wood. Their organic shapes would be incredibly time-consuming to realise in a hand-built wooden model — and a 3D printer that is able to produce the form effortlessly in turn is not able to replicate the material of the building. Or so it used to be.

One of the biggest factors that has been putting architects off from using 3D printing is the lack of wood as a printing material, but not anymore. An astoundingly authentic-looking replication of wood has been developed also for consumer 3D printers. This wood filament contains small wooden fibers (up to 40%) combined with PLA plastic and a polymer that binds them together, resulting in a printable yet authentic looking material. Versions are available for many different types of wood, from bamboo to ebony and mahogany. The resulting model looks, feels and even smells like wood.

 Image from  3D Jake

Image from 3D Jake

Achieve a metal finish with the printability of plastic

Metals such as steel have long been staple materials for architectural frameworks. When recognized for their innate beauty as well as structural integrity, the results are inspiring. Revered architects such as Frank Gehry with his Walt Disney Concert Hall have challenged the idea of using steel merely to construct a building’s skeleton and have instead created innovative structures that allow the material to take center stage.

  Walt Disney Concert Hall  by Frank Gehry.

Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry.

Steel constructions are not only challenging to construct, but also to build in the design process in form of scale models. Metal in general is used for handcrafted models to create the building’s skeleton, but using it for the whole model can be laborious due to the unforgiving nature of the material.

As the models themselves do not require the structural benefits of metal, using a material that emulates metal is a more effortless option. PLA plastic combined with very fine ground metals and polymer glue that sticks them together produces a steel-finish plastic.

 By polishing the printed model you can create a convincing metal finish. Image from  MatterHackers .

By polishing the printed model you can create a convincing metal finish. Image from MatterHackers.

It is slightly heavier than normal used PLA but not as heavy as real metal. Afterwards, it needs some post-processing so that it actually gleams like metal. However, there is often a lot of experimentation required to find the right settings on your 3D printer for a successful print — you can also consider printing your design with normal PLA or ABS plastic in white and paint it with a stainless steel spray for example.

 With this model in metallic look, Reiser + Umemoto won the competition for the Kaohsiung Port and Cruise Service Center in southern Taiwan. Image from  Archdaily .

With this model in metallic look, Reiser + Umemoto won the competition for the Kaohsiung Port and Cruise Service Center in southern Taiwan. Image from Archdaily.

Project stone in your models

In ancient times, stone was viewed as the material to solidify the immortality of buildings. While constructing buildings with the stability and aesthetic of stone remains appreciated today, creating scale models out of stone can be very challenging to downright impossible.

Most architects use materials like styrofoam modified with craft knives and colour to create stone-looking models. Needless to say, this takes time, effort and skill. Instead of sacrificing all that time in replicating stone in your model by cutting and painting, you could just 3D print your model. A PLA-based filament filled with about 50% of powdered stone brings alive stone facades, concrete elements and landscape details.

The material is 37% higher in density and weight than normal PLA. Versions are available in pottery clay, terracotta, concrete and granite. A 3D printer using a stone-looking PLA plastic lets you prototype a variety of stone buildings, easily and quickly.

 Create stone designs with 3D printing. Image from  Form Futura .

Create stone designs with 3D printing. Image from Form Futura.

Highlight parts of your design and create details in a variety of colours

While a huge benefit of 3D printers is the possibility to create any model easily and quickly, another great benefit is their ability to supplement hand-built models. You can use a 3D printer also or only for small and or complex elements; with the variety of materials available today you don’t need to sacrifice any aspect. 3D printing is also a great way to highlight sections; just print them out in another colour or finish.

 Just a few of the filament colours available. Image from  Matterhackers .

Just a few of the filament colours available. Image from Matterhackers.

The details within and around your design are especially important and helpful when communicating with clients or submitting an entry for a competition. Creating the environment and interior of your design brings your design alive. Since a 3D printer can create elements at the smallest scale you are able to easily print furniture, figures and landscape details in a variety of finishes.

 Print furniture, figures and landscape details. Image from  Hobs Studio.

Print furniture, figures and landscape details. Image from Hobs Studio.

However, sometimes a white plastic model prevents bias and distraction. When in the very beginning when it’s all about finding the right mass and form, a simple white plastic model works best. In that case a 3D printed model in just one colour and in plastic has the same effect as handcrafted models using foam for massing studies with one additional benefit: With a 3D printer you are able to create more variations of your design in less time. Whatever you are aiming to achieve, the variety of materials and finishes today lets you accurately realise your design — down to the last detail.

What kind of materials would you like to print? 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