Category Archives: 3D Printing

Harnessing the Power of 3D Technologies for Library and Archives Collections

By Amy Trendler, Architecture Librarian, and Carol Street, Archivist for Architectural Records, Ball State University Libraries

Two ongoing projects in the Architecture Library and the Drawings + Documents Archive at Ball State University are making use of new technologies to augment the collections, engage the students, and raise the profile of these branch operations of the University Libraries. Physically located in the College of Architecture and Planning’s Architecture Building on campus, the library and archive are well-situated to provide collections and services to the students and faculty members who make up their primary user group. As these users incorporate new technologies such as 3D modeling software and 3D printing into their projects, staff in the library and archive have sought out ways to use these same technologies to interpret the collections.

Example of a Revit file from the project featuring a bench from Keystone Ridge Designs catalog of site furnishings.
Example of a Revit file from the project featuring a bench from Keystone Ridge Designs catalog of site furnishings.

3D Modeling Software Enhances the Materials Collection

In the Architecture Library, student workers in the Visual Resources Collection (VRC) are creating files using the 3D modeling software Revit for items in the Building Material Samples Collection. Begun in 2009, the Building Material Samples Collection makes innovative and sustainable materials available to students and faculty for study purposes. Items may also be checked out for four days and taken to studio or displayed during presentations. The collection consists of more than 600 material samples for surfaces, structural or technical building components, hardscape products, and more. In addition to samples, the collection also contains product literature for materials that are too large or unwieldy for the manufacturer to produce samples.

It was the items in this last category, the ones that are too big to be samples, that were the inspiration for the VRC’s growing collection of Revit files. A student worker suggested making Revit files of these objects that users could incorporate into their 3D designs in the same way that they can use objects from the file-sharing site Revit City. The library staff immediately recognized the value in enhancing the usability of the materials collection, we were able to work out the details of storing and accessing the files, and thus the Revit project was born. Students can now download the files of street furniture, lighting, and other materials from a library server (which is password-protected for use by current university students and faculty members) and insert the objects into their projects. A jpg of each item provides a quick view; once downloaded, the Revit version of the file is fully integrated into the project and can be manipulated with the tools available in the software. If a student wants to use the file in a different program, he or she can open the file in Revit (using this software on a library computer if he or she doesn’t have a copy), save it in another CAD format, then import the file into a program such as Rhino or SketchUp.

Example of a Revit file from the project featuring a drinking fountain from Most Dependable Fountains catalog of outdoor products.
Example of a Revit file from the project featuring a drinking fountain from Most Dependable Fountains catalog of outdoor products.

The Next Phase of the Project: Surfaces

The next phase of the Revit project will see the addition of surface materials from the collection that can be applied to surfaces on a building or object in Revit. There is a range of standard materials available in Revit, but now students will be able to easily apply the unique textures and patterns of materials found on samples in the Building Material Samples Collection such as woven coconut shell panels or translucent concrete to the walls, floors, ceilings, and other surfaces in their designs. Samples of these materials are available for study in the collection, but the Revit file gives students the option of going beyond a simple material swatch and applying the material to surfaces in their designs.

Response to the Revit project from students and faculty members has been positive, and use of the files will likely only increase as the collection grows. For the library staff, the Revit project has been a great way to make the materials collection even more accessible to students. A side benefit for the student workers assigned to the project is that they are expanding and refining their Revit skills, and in the case of student assistant Susan Smith her Revit skills helped her get a summer internship at a design firm. It is especially fitting that Smith was able to capitalize on her involvement in the Revit project because the project was her idea in the first place. “I was inspired to suggest the project because I thought it would be a great way to attract students into the VRC,” she said. “[I hope] students will see it as an opportunity to utilize the library’s material resources in a format they can actually incorporate into their projects.”

Wysor Grand Opera House 3D rendering (2014) and original drawing (1891). Indiana Architecture X 3D, Drawings + Documents Archive, Ball State University Libraries.
Wysor Grand Opera House 3D rendering (2014) and original drawing (1891). Indiana Architecture X 3D, Drawings + Documents Archive, Ball State University Libraries.

3D Applications in the Archive

A similar project at the Drawings + Documents Archive has garnered interest for its use of 3D prints to bring a long-lost 19th century building to life. The archive, begun shortly after the College of Architecture and Planning opened in 1966, collects, preserves, and provides access to records of Indiana’s built environment. Collections are used to support undergraduate and graduate student learning in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and historic preservation. The students in the latter group, historic preservation, naturally gravitate toward the materials in the archives and readily grasp their usefulness for course assignments. It became apparent that students from the more technology-driven fields of architecture, landscape architecture, and planning would benefit from interpreting the collections in an interesting, technologically-centric way that brought the focus back to the original drawings. Thus, printing models from the drawings was born out of this desire to present the collections to students in a new way and spark their interest in archival materials.

3D modeling process for column with wrought iron ornamentation and cast iron balcony railing, 2014. Indiana Architecture X 3D, Drawings + Documents Archive, Ball State University Libraries.
3D modeling process for column with wrought iron ornamentation and cast iron balcony railing, 2014. Indiana Architecture X 3D, Drawings + Documents Archive, Ball State University Libraries.

The Indiana Architecture X 3D (IAx3D) project began in fall 2013 with a set of archival drawings for a local building with an interesting history. The Wysor Grand Opera House was built in downtown Muncie, Indiana, by the architect Henry W. Matson in 1891. This impressive Romanesque Revival opera house exemplified the architectural exuberance and rapid growth during the area’s natural gas boom that inspired numerous factories and businesses, including the famous Ball Brothers Company, to relocate to Muncie. The building’s history follows the changing fortunes and tastes of the city by undergoing renovations to become a popular movie theater in the 1920s that later lost business when other theaters opened outside of the declining downtown. The building was torn down in 1967, during a period of urban renewal that students today still try to comprehend.

The Wysor Grand Opera House’s history, as well as the archive’s set of high-quality, ink on linen drawings, makes this building a great discussion starter for many class visits to the archive. For these reasons it seemed an ideal candidate for launching the IAX3D project. Architecture department graduate assistants assigned to the archive used digital scans of the linen drawings, first working with elements such as columns and wrought iron railings on the detail sheets, to create underlays in the program Rhino. On top of these, they traced over the lines to create baselines and used program tools to create volumes and surfaces. The process of converting irregular hand-drawn lines to smooth computer-generated forms proved challenging to the students working on the project, but it also increased their appreciation of the original drawings. Graduate assistant Austin Pontius remarked that as hard as it was to trace some of the drawings for the intricate ironwork, he was impressed that someone had drawn it by hand over 100 years ago.

Digital Media Repository screenshot for column with wrought iron ornamentation and cast iron balcony railing, 2014. Indiana Architecture X 3D, Drawings + Documents Archive, Ball State University Libraries.
Digital Media Repository screenshot for column with wrought iron ornamentation and cast iron balcony railing, 2014. Indiana Architecture X 3D, Drawings + Documents Archive, Ball State University Libraries.

Over the first year of the project, nine Wysor Grand Opera House details have been printed and the entire building has been modeled but not printed at this time. The entire collection is available online at the University Libraries’ Digital Media Repository. Each entry in the collection contains an object (OBJ) file to allow easy, computer mouse enabled manipulation of the 3D rendering for anyone with an adequate browser. The original drawing sheet from which that detail originated is pictured below the object to inspire comparisons from the digital to the original. The downloadable print-ready Rhino 3D model file (3DM) is available in the metadata in case patrons or educators would like to make their own prints.

Student and faculty reaction to the IAX3D project has been enthusiastically positive. Because the models are created using technology many of the students use or aspire to use, students naturally gravitate toward them and begin to ask questions about the building’s history, design, or even the process of creating the models. While the 3D models could never supplant the importance of the original drawings, they do serve as a vital bridge that connects students’ current interests in 3D printing with historical materials.

Taking Stock of 3D Printing

By Hannah Bennett


Make anything you want just by pressing print.     – YouTube Video

I think we all know the following about 3D printing: it’s a technology from the 1980s; it’s also known as additive manufacturing; its initial primary use was prototyping, especially in the engineering and aerospace industries. Here’s what we know it does: it turns 3D model designs (CAD files usually) into solid objects on demand. The material (traditionally plastic) is layered in an additive process through an extruder which is mounted on a carriage (not unlike a regular printer carriage) that moves on all three axes, building the form vertically. We also know that 3D printing has the promise of vastly improving production and manufacturing, creating more sustainable practices, and enabling incredibly precise customization. Perhaps most critically, 3D printing, or bioprinting, will play an integral role in regenerative medicine, generating artificial organs such as kidneys, hearts, or even skin. It’s difficult to imagine an industry that has no feasible use for 3D printing. Hod Lipson notes, “Food printing will be to 3D printing what gaming now is to computers.” Behold: digital cuisine. Or, thanks to Dovetail’s efforts, we can print fresh fruit with their 3D printer which operates by utilizing a specific technique of molecular-gastronomy called “spherification.” Here’s how it works.

With the decrease in 3D printer prices, this sort of personal manufacturing will have wide appeal and availability which is very exciting but also brings to mind ethical or safety concerns about what will be mass-producible. For example, check out Defense Distributed; there you can read about the “wiki weapon” project, an embattled effort on the part of the programmers to provide people with the files necessary to print a gun, beginning with durable rifle receivers for the popular AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. Less polarizing but equally intriguing are projects such as Fab@Home, whose goal is to “democratize innovation” and bring personal fabrication to one’s home through 3D printing technology and open-source personal fabrication technology (see Fab@Home overview).  If you cannot come up with your own designs in programs like Google Sketch-Up, Rhino, Maya, or Blender, consult MakerBot’s Thingiverse, which offers all sorts of .stl files for the home fabricator to download and print, e.g., T-Rex showerhead, a cable organizer or a lamp. In addition, there are plenty of online communities and Meet-Up groups focused around 3D printing and design.

In terms of architecture, it is impossible to underscore the role 3D printing has had and the direction it is taking design, its functionality, and its representational language. The possibilities of digital production techniques can offer, for example, affordable housing solutions worldwide, in slums or in disaster areas, as well as looking at how digital designs can be shared and modified via the internet and new online networks.  In 2012, Softkill Design in partnership with Materialise and the Architectural Association School of Architecture’s Design Research Lab, developed the first “high-resolution” prototype of a 3D printed house, the ProtoHouse.


In the Netherlands, DUS Architects are leading an interdisciplinary project which 3D printed a canal house in full size with the KamerMaker, a large moveable 3D-printer that was developed specially for the project. The 3D Print Canal House is printed with newly developed materials derived from biobased raw materials. It is also possible to print with recycled plastics. In April of this year, Winsun New Materials, a construction firm based in Suzhou, China, has successfully built ten small-scale houses using a massive 3-D printer. According to the Wall Street Journal, Winsun says it estimates the cost of printing these homes is about half that of building them the traditional way. On a more esoteric level, 3D printing has the potential to bring the “real world” into these hypermodern biomorphic designs (and protypes) developed from any number of architectural offices. Consider MOS Architect’s Ballroom Marfa Drive-In plans or Doris Sung’s Tracheolis system which explores how rapid prototyping or three-dimensional printing can mass produce a flexible kind of concrete block system which takes the heating and cooling systems of a building directly into the blocks (rather than a forced air system). The breathability of the block is achieved by incorporating a complex cavity system that is similar to the trachea system of grasshoppers, who breathe through spiracle holes in their sides. These are but a very few in the countless number of experiments, art projects, sculptures, and installations involving 3d printing. More recently, Arup developed a 3D printing technique for structural steel.


According to Salomé Galjaard, the team leader at Arup, “by using additive manufacturing we can create lots of complex individually designed pieces far more efficiently. This has tremendous implications for reducing costs and cutting waste. But most importantly, this approach potentially enables a very sophisticated design, without the need to simplify the design in a later stage to lower costs.”

D-Shape is an extremely new robotic building system using new materials to create superior stone-like structures. This new machinery enables “full-size sandstone buildings to be made without human intervention, using a stereolithography 3D printing process that requires only sand and D-Shapes’s special inorganic binder to operate….By simply pressing the ‘enter’ key on the keypad we intend to give the architect the possibility to make buildings directly, without intermediaries who can add interpretation and realization mistakes.” The 3D technology company Inition has developed an augmented-reality iPad app that allows architects to look inside static architectural models, visualize how their building will look at night and track how wind flows around their design proposals. As a result, architects can call up a variety of information overlays that combine with the physical model.

Even taking stock of 3D printing today is a challenge. The important point to take away is that it is changing so many different fields, including architecture, incredibly quickly. We’ve also seen how 3D printing is changing how architects relate to spaces and the materials to construct them. By partnering other fields with design, such as cognitive science or biology, there is no limit to what 3D printing technology can bring to architecture.