Industrial-scale 3D printing is working its way into architectural modeling as the technology improves in speed, lowers in cost, and broadens in scope. New to the market for professional 3D printing services is the South Ogden, Utah–based WhiteClouds, which was founded in April 2013 but formally launched in December. The 22-member startup boasts an inventory of 12 industrial printers that can collectively print in 180 materials ranging from plastic to a sandstone-like finish, and a business model that targets architects and builders.
The company’s founder and CEO, Jerry Ropelato, a digital media executive and creator of online publisher TechMediaNetwork (now Purch), has invested $2 million in the company so far. He also helped established its presence with pre-launch stunt-builds, including the modeling and fabrication of a 1:120-scale (or, 3-foot-long) version of Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop in under 24 hours, and a Kickstarter campaign that raised $12,955 to fund the design and fabrication of steampunk-inspired dinosaur replicas.
Last month, White Clouds announced the availability of its full-color and monochrome residential and commercial 3D modeling and printing services. ARCHITECT talked with Ropelato about the company’s value proposition for the design and construction market and what architects have taught his team about 3D printing.
What allowed WhiteClouds to break into the architectural market for professional 3D printing services?
Jerry Ropelato: There weren’t too many players in the architectural space—most are in the aerospace and automotive industries. And the barriers to entry are very high for a startup. Our printers vary in price from $65,000 to $350,000 and most startups cannot afford one, let alone a dozen of them. The quality of our equipment was one advantage we had as well as [the ability] to hire the caliber of employee who is able to use that equipment. It’s a pretty expensive proposition.
How did you get your first customers?
JR: We invited individuals from various corporations in our area. And our printing of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop going viral generated a lot of interest. Since then, we’ve found a niche within the architectural space. It took us nine or 10 months to get really good at printing 3D models. We do a lot of 3D printing in rapid prototyping for all kinds of customers.
What are your printing capabilities as far as size, scale, and material type?
JR: An architectural model for a home may take us a week to [prepare for printing] and three or four hours to print, whereas we may also be printing a thousand different parts and other small objects [on other machines]. Capacity varies based on the type of job and the type of printer. We can print any size of model—the sky’s the limit as long as you’re OK with a seam. We find that most of our customers like [a single] model without any seams, so it has to fit within a 10-inch-wide-by-15-inch-long-by-8-inch-tall build tray. Typically, once the design work is completed, we can print a model of a home at the rate of about 1 inch. in height per hour. So if your model is 5 inches tall, it will take about five hours to print. Our pricing structure is based on the amount of material it takes to print it and the time that it takes to prepare the design for print. The smallest cost is actually the material cost—the largest cost is usually just getting the files ready.
A potential customer comes to you with a sketch of something that he or she would like printed—what happens next?
JR: If a customer knows exactly what they want, they can just upload a file and we’ll print it out. We’ve done prints using pictures that customers have taken with their smartphones, for example, and have built a digital model from a set of blueprints. We also get BIM and CAD files. We get as much information about the project as we can. Every job is different but, on average, we put in 20 to 30 hours to get a project 3D-printable. For an architectural model, that includes scale modifications such as adjusting walls, railings, and other thin features so they won’t break during the print. We can also add textures, such as [roof shingles and masonry joints].
Last month, you met with architects at the AIA National Convention in Chicago. How did they respond to your 3D-printing work?
JR: Most architects know that you can 3D print architectural models. I don’t think that was a big surprise. What I think was the surprise was the detail and the ability to do anything in one model, including landscaping or topographical mapping. Another is that, in the past, models were white or monochrome. We can add up to 750,000 different colors in a single model using our ProJet 660 Pro from 3D Systems, which was something that surprised all of them. Most of our architectural models are printed using that machine unless the client wants a more durable and high-tech look, in which case we would use our Objet Connex 500 from Stratasys.
What have you learned about architecture and construction from providing 3D printing services to the industry?
JR: One of the things we heard over and over again at the convention is that, about a decade ago, physical models [were replaced by digital models]. That has changed. Architects are now finding that the renderings just don’t give the same feel as when you can hold the model, turn the model, look at it from different perspectives, and really understand the scale. I think being able to create these very detailed models is helping the architecture community get back into some of its modeling needs.
What about your work with TechMediaNetwork translates to WhiteClouds’ role as a provider of 3D printing services?
JR: I’ve always been a firm believer in educating consumers and businesses on the industry they’re in. That’s one of the things TechMediaNetwork was good at—helping buyers purchase the right products and services. As we built White Clouds, we felt we needed an editorial part of the business that explained [3D printing], especially for businesses or consumers that are new to this. It’s not a large part of our company, but we feel good being able to help visitors to our website with [educational content] explaining the entire 3D-printing process.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.