3D printers bring new dimension to smart city services

Fri, 2015-01-30 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

There’s no doubt that 3D printers are closer than ever to becoming mainstream. As the printers drop in size and price, people are now using them in ways that would have been obscenely wasteful just a few years ago, such as making their own action figures.

But as the printers become more accessible, there’s also a huge opportunity for cities to leverage the technology to serve residents in new ways, without busting the budget. Enterprising cities find they can help people better visualize new ideas. They can help cut down on waste. And they can help bring people together.

Bringing ideas to life
When a major development or public project is planned, it’s almost always presented as an architectural drawing, artist rendering or computer animation. With 3D printing, however, plans can jump off the page or computer screen, making presentations and discussions about the work much more compelling.

Using 3D printing in the early stages of projects can also help save money. It’s easier to win approval when people don’t have to strain their imaginations to visualize how something will look. It can also eliminate steps between design and fabrication, resulting in significant savings.

Custom benches are a key feature of the new plaza at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Architects were able to print out life-size versions of their designs, which they then sent straight to fabrication. The Erie Street Plaza in Milwaukee also benefited from 3D printing. Printed models were used to create the steel mold for the pavers, helping to ensure the $100,000 mold would be right the first time.

Green prototyping
Using 3D printers in the design process can also reduce waste and environmental impact. A company in the United Arab Emirates is using 3D printers to produce prototypes of its sensors for a recycling monitoring project.

Cities will eventually use the sensors to optimize their waste reduction efforts, but the development work behind the sensors has also reduced waste over conventional production methods. Since they are directly printing the sensor prototypes, they have not had to create molds. There is also no need for metal tooling, which further reduces waste.

Amsterdam’s biggest attraction
The 3D printers aren’t just limited to building physical objects. In Amsterdam, they’re also building a sense of community.

The 3D Print Canal House is a working museum built around a printer capable of printing 10-foot-tall walls. It opened earlier this year and draws experts from around the world who are researching best practices for printing buildings. The museum itself is largely the product of the 3D printer, and new sections are being printed all the time.  (Click to watch a video.)

In addition to being a working lab that could shape the way buildings are printed and permitted, it’s also a huge tourist attraction. U.S. President Barack Obama was one of the first visitors.

It’s a testament to the tenacity of the people behind the project. They’re a group of artists and developers who just a few years ago were getting in trouble with police over unpermitted bars that they would print and open on city streets. Now the city is embracing their work.

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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