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3D printing is causing a stir in industrial design and engineering circles, but how can it help AEC professionals who don’t want to take the technology in-house? AEC Magazine looks at how bureau services can model projects down to the finest detail.

When trying to win bids, impress clients or explain planning procedures, the traditional scale model has always been a clear, reliable method.

SLA model produced on a 3D Systems Viper machine. Brought to life with hand finishing, painting and traditional model making techniques. Image courtesy of Thorp.

Nothing works quite like a 3D model that a potential client can walk around and inspect, yet the cost and time they take to produce often make them impractical for an industry where developments move at high speed.

Fine detail architectural model produced by IPF

Traditional model makers still exist, but many have taken on new 3D printing technology to produce amazing models and dioramas in a fraction of the time.

In this case a 3D printer builds up a model in paper-thin micron layers on top of one another, taking its data straight from the CAD model.

The level of detail and structural strength offered by high-end machines means that fine details and angles can be outputted as the designer intended.


So how can you get the best from this technology by using a bureau service?

3D printing is far from a clean and straightforward process; you cannot simply press a button and ‘voila’ a fully finished model appears.

Bureaux not only have the machines needed to print the parts, but also the skilled staff to adjust data, clean up, finish and assemble parts, and crucially, guide customers through the process with advice and experience.

The parts can usually be shipped anywhere in the world, and because repeat custom is key, reliability is paramount to what bureaux provide.

Model produced by ARRK
Design by Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects (KPF)
Client: The Pinnacle Limited
Photography by Richard Thackham

What is the model for?

Before choosing a bureau you need to define exactly what your model will be used for. All bureaux offer different material processes, but many also have other specialities, such as increased production speed or skilled craftsmen with years of experience building models to the highest quality.

A model for public viewing might need to show how people will interact with the building, requiring additional figures, trees, transport and sense of realism.

Models to win a pitch, or impress a client might focus on fine details within the structure and need the right materials to have this pin-sharp.

A 3D print does not have to be simply a stationary object for aesthetic viewing. The reduction in costs in 3D printing means models can be printed fast and cheap for use during the design phase.

Models with colour printed straight from the 3D printer can show computational fluid dynamics (CFD) data for wind flow and air pressures on the building; highlight a specific architectural feature within a build, or different networks in a plan such as HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and electrical lines.

Strength and durability can vary greatly between different 3D print materials and processes, so there’s a choice to be made between a model that will be placed in a glass casing, or one that will be passed around between architects studying every possible angle.

The size of a model obviously carries its restrictions. Machines have ever increasing build envelopes, yet still have restrictions on what can be produced in one print, which affects assembly, cost and time.

A simple, small model might be easily printed in one go, but to get the best from a more complex model might require a combination of builds, materials and techniques.

A good bureau service will be able to provide these, advise on any areas that might benefit and add value.

Data decision

Sending data to a bureau can be the trickiest thing to get right. Different bureaux accept different files, with the outcomes and potential problems varying.

“To run a 3D printer we require data in STL format,” says Gary Miller at IPF ltd. “Yet when the client converts their data to STL there’s nearly always teething problems.”

Common problems including scaling, wall thickness and optimising buildings for print by ‘hollowing out’ plague such data transfers.

Mr Miller explains that the way for clients to solve this simply themselves is through third-party software. “The larger, more experienced architects now have a seat or two of Magics, a file fixing software, which helps them prepare the data for printing.

“We have to insist on STL CAD data as changing file formats on behalf of a client can lead to complications in their critical data.”

Other bureaux sometimes have the facilities to take on other file types, yet this can add extra time on to a project.

3D print bureaux: four of the best


Model makers for over 125 years as part of Atom Ltd, Thorp has vast amounts of experience in melding traditional techniques with cutting edge high-definition SLA printing technology.

Why use a bureau?

“As we are model makers as well as a bureau we can offer the complete service of finishing the model as well as the SLA.

“Combining both services results in an efficiently produced model to a very high standard.”


Twelve years of UK business experience and a large number of machines has placed ARRK as a key provider of SLA and more intricate SLS models. As part of an international corporation it has access to CNC machined parts cheaply.

Why use a bureau?

“It is one thing having a machine but another knowing how to get the best from it. With a bureau you are not restricted to one technology, material or process.”

IPF Limited

A specialist for industrial designers, IPF has quietly been producing architectural models with wow factor. Its access to Stratasys Connex technology makes its models stand out against alternative processes, especially when illuminated from within.

Why use a bureau?

“To discover what works best for varying projects as no one technology will deliver the complete solution. Clients with in-house 3D printers still require a bureau service to print overflow.”

Call Print 3D

Active in London for nine years, the firm runs six ZPrinters on a non-stop basis. The benefits include full colour models often delivered within 24 hours. High definition is sacrificed for speed and price, but the models are incredibly useful during the design process and planning.

Why use a bureau?

“We like to think we take the pain out of 3D printing. We offer a substantial team for preparing data as it often needs quite a bit of work and optimising.”

Thorp has been a model maker for over 125 years and can offer more assistance at this stage, converting models from 2D data into 3D data, even working from visuals or photographs.

“We accept all file formats for SLA models including Revit or SketchUp files, but we usually have to complete some work on them before they are suitable for use with the SLA machine,” explains Thorp’s business development manager Peter Day.

Others companies, such as ARRK, fall in the mid point, accepting the most common formats IGES and STEP, while Call Print enlists a bank of technicians to turn around a project as fast as possible.

“There’s a multitude of design packages out there,” says Call Print’s Paul D’Rozario. “We have 500 clients using different software, when we come to physically print we need to optimise the 3D model.

“If a building’s been designed in 1:1 and they want to print a model at 1:1000, then the wall thickness and other elements are going to need changing.

“For a lot of our customers they don’t want to have to redesign a model just for 3D printing.”

The key element is dependent on the architect’s data, the abilities of the person sending it, and the timescale in which the model needs to be completed. More work that can be done in-house will save time and costs of outsourcing, yet for the inexperienced, a bureau can offer a failsafe way of getting it right.

Race against time

Turnaround time is often critical in a project, and no architect wants the design phase to be cut short simply so a model can be made on time.

This all rests on the size and scale of the project and the level of finishing.

Materials, specific decoration, and hand finishing can all mean extra costs and add significantly to the time, but are important considerations when deciding the impact you want the model to have.

Call Print specialises in fast turnaround colour prints using its suite of six ZPrinters, excellent for fast iteration appraisals throughout the entire workflow.

The parts are printed much faster from these machines, although the finish is not as high as an SLA material.

The speed and cost benefits see them being used much earlier in the design phases, allowing architects to refer to these throughout the project.

ARRK offers popular clear SLA materials and bright white Duraform PA SLS material, which also allows more complex geometries to be built like internal features. Clear acrylic CNC machined components are also very popular, but will add time onto the production dependent on complexity.

The materials used by IPF’s Stratasys Connex machines are more expensive, but can contribute to a standout presentation especially when illuminated.

Using a combination of VeroWhite and VeroClear materials, the clear material encases the white detailed structure of a building and allows the designer to include every small detail he or she wishes.

Given its long history in hand crafting models, Thorp’s team of modelmakers build key structures on high detail 3D Systems Viper Si SLA printers.

The traditional skills of its workers can add in full surroundings and decoration to a diorama. Although this takes longer to produce, being assembled and finished predominantly by hand, it can have an incredible impact.


3D print bureaux provide a wide range of processes, materials and skills — many of which have been honed over decades of working in the industry.

Machines can produce amazing parts, but all need some hands-on finishing from a bureau. In addition you get the experience and advice from beginning to end.

Reliable delivery services now mean using a local model-making service is no longer a restriction. The UK provides some of the most skilled and well-equipped model makers in the world. Companies can outsource work to the other end of the country and know it will arrive on time for its big presentation.

The world might be moving into a new digital age, but a solid, physical representation of a project will always appeal to every demographic.