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Renzo Piano architects show how they use 3D printers for models

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Genovese architect Renzo Piano is among the world’s most famous architects and his company, the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) is behind dozens of the highest-profile projects in many countries.

The practice permanently employs about 110 architects together with a further 30 support staff including 3D visualization artists, model makers, archivers, administrative, and secretarial staff. Scale models are an essential part of the architects’ workflow and 3D printing has dramatically changed the way these models are made. Formlabs recently revealed that the studio uses a Form 3 SLA 3D printer, among other systems.

Francesco Terranova and Dimitri Lange, two model makers at RPBW make hundreds of large- and small-scale models to test different proposals. Often, the architects make changes to the models directly, which they can later reproduce in CAD. Every few weeks, clients also come to the practice for an update on the projects, where the models play a crucial role in helping to make updates tangible.

Renzo Piano
The Form 3 3D printer in use at Renzo Piano’s studio

“Our models change every day or even every hour. Because the architects change the project very quickly, most of the time, we don’t have enough time to do it by hand. Therefore, we have to find a way to do it quicker,” said Mr. Terranova.

The model makers use a combination of traditional tools for hand-making models as well as digital tools like 3D printers, CNC milling machines, and laser cutters to create various parts. 3D printing is considered ideal for geometries that are not easy to be realized by hand, such as spheres and curved surfaces.

“We did models for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. It has a shape like a pressed sphere,” Terranova revealed. “This museum has changed, I think, hundreds of times. Every day, we had to do another model, by changing it just a little from the previous one. The only way to do it so fast was to 3D print it. The good thing is that we can launch the printer in the night, and when we come back in the morning, we find the model done. This way, we don’t lose time during the day.”

Renzo Piano
The Form 3 lets the architects print precise models of trees

Six years ago, the Renzo Piano studio, like many others, started with a powder-based machine using binder hjetting technology (the 660 series from 3D Systems which uses a technology called color jet printing or CJP). However, the limestone material used for that type of printer is very delicate and can be damaged by humidity. The company then moved to a Form 2 (which cost about 1/20 of the CJP system and leverages laser stereolithography) while adding a high-end material jetting 3D printer from 3D Systems (which also prints resin but does so with a more advanced inkjet head). Mr. Terranova also said that they have a small filament extrusion 3D printer that works with thermoplastics such as PLA and ABS.

“What we appreciate very much with the Formlabs machines is the solidity and the strength of the material, and also the precision of the models. Formlabs resins, once printed, are very easy to sand. That is a very good thing because we always need to paint the model. Even if we use White Resin, the white is not exactly the same white that we use with our models. We actually have to paint the model made with 3D printers and also the rest of the model made with the CNC machines and other tools. So it’s very useful that we can sand it easily,” said Mr. Terranova.

Most recently, the studio also upgraded their Form 2 to Formlabs’ newest Form 3 SLA printer, which has allowed them to print some of the most complex models, while also saving time on post-processing.

“The trees were a big problem because they are very fragile, very thin. We tried to do it with the Form 2 [and the other printers, but they’d break]. With the Form 3, we don’t have the same problem and it allows us to 3D print trees. Removing supports with the Form 3 also seems to be easier, because we can use smaller supports,” said Mr. Terranova.

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Victor Anusci

Victor does not really exist. He is a pseudonym for several writers in the 3D Printing Media Network team. As a pseudonym, Victor has also had a fascinating made-up life story, living as a digital (and virtual) nomad to cover the global AM industry. He has always worked extra-hard whenever he was needed to create unique content. However, lately, as our editorial team has grown, he is mostly taking care of publishing press releases.

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