Seven days, two 3D printers, hundreds of parts, one model, and a 4-3 vote. How Autodesk’s Ember 3D printer helped save a historic hotel. 

We’ve made architecture models before, but this particular one was different.  Not because it was 3D printed, but because 3D printing made it possible. To give you a little background, in our relatively small city of Mandeville, Louisiana, there has been a little controversy over the plans to redevelop a decaying 130 year old historic property, known as the Rest Awhile Hotel located on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, just a few blocks from our office. On one side, was the property owner wanting to restore the historic building to the hotel and tavern it was originally built as more than a century ago, on the other side, were the residents who have been fighting the proposed restoration for the past year and did not want to live next to a busy hotel and tavern.  Needless to say, there was a lot on the line and it all came down to one final vote.

With only seven days before the vote, there wasn’t much time, so we had to carefully plan how we were to print all the different parts. We spent a day or so creating the 3D models of all the parts in Solidworks. Using the drawing files created by the architect with AutoCAD Architecture as a reference, we modeled the parts for the specific 3D printer we were going to use and to make assembly as efficient as possible.

Once the CAD work was completed it was time to print. All the larger components were printed on our Stratasys Fortus 250mc FDM machine. It’s a bulletproof machine and incredibly reliable. The only catch, it’s not exactly “rapid”. Running 24 hours a day, it took about five days to print all the FDM parts (a couple builds even took over 20 hours), so there was no room for error if we were to make our deadline.

While our trusty Fortus chugged away, the critical parts, the detail parts that would set this model apart were printed on our new Autodesk Ember 3D printer.  Considering what was at stake, we had a few concerns trusting a printer that is still experimental and a printer that we ourselves were still coming to grips with.  Our biggest concerns were with reliability, repeatability, and accuracy, but mainly reliability.

With our Fortus, we know it can take almost anything we throw at it.  When we were tasked with this project, we had only been using it for maybe two weeks.  Our success rate at this point was maybe 70-75% and we had been going through a lot of trial and error figuring out things like the best part orientation, support settings, etc.  We had only printed experimental parts, nothing mission critical.  However, we finally had a printer capable of creating the level of detail that we have had to so often had to apologetically explain was not possible with our FDM machine.  We had to do it, we had to just trust the Ember.  We just had to come to terms with the fact that the question of reliability couldn’t be answered until this project was delivered.

The hardest part was finding the best part orientation and generating the supports that would allow the parts to be printed successfully.  In general, the part we printed on the Ember all had the same geometries, long flat surfaces, thin features, and sharp 90 degree edges.  Basically the geometries that have been giving us the most issues so far.  As wonderful a program and Autodesk’s MeshMixer is, it’s really not that good at automatically generating supports.  We usually just manually generated each support element.  For example, once a part was uploaded and sliced on the Ember website, I would step through each layer one by one and find a layer where there was a part that was exposed over a spot with no support (by the way, much thanks to the Ember dev team for implementing this feature request so quickly!).  So I’d have to go back and redo the supports.  It was time consuming, but once we understood how the Ember works and how the resin responds, we were able to process the parts manually through Meshmixer and not rely too much on its automatic processing features.  Once we got everything dialed in, the Ember was a champ and printed 24 hours a day for at least 4 days.  We never did an official count, but we printed over 150 parts on the Ember alone.

With our concern of reliability pushed aside, would it be accurate?  Since there isn’t an easy direct path to go from the AutoCAD 2D drawings to parametric solid models, we modeled each component in full scale in Solidworks and then scaled each part down to the proper 1:96 scale for the final model.  Not only did the parts have to be dimensionally accurate, but they needed to be as dimensionally accurate as the parts we were printing with FDM, a completely different process with a completely different material.  In the end, we had to do far more sanding and filing of the FDM parts than anything that came out of the Ember.  The Ember’s post processing was much less labor intensive.  Parts were removed from the Ember, soaked in an ultrasonic cleaner with 70% IPA (rubbing alcohol) for two minutes, rinsed in water, dried and then put into a UV nail polish curing lamp for 4-6minutes.  Most parts did require some minor sanding to smooth out the support contact points, but that’s about it.  Once we filed and sanded the FDM parts (mostly the start/stop bead that is inherent to the FDM process), the Ember parts fit like a glove.

Ultimately, everything worked out perfectly.  The larger elements printed on the Fortus 250 assembled together and created the general shape of the property and proposed development, but as they say, the devil is in the details.  The elements of the model that were printed on the Ember were all the doors, windows, handrail, stairs, posts and columns. The clear resin airbushed with a little clear acrylic paint allowed us to create realistic looking windows and doors.  The other parts were painted white to match the rest of the model, but all the Ember parts were very easily painted and looked amazing.  However, we did underestimate one aspect of this project, the final assembly.  Once we had all the parts printed, finished, and painted, the final hours of those seven days were spent painstakingly placing and gluing the dozens and dozens and dozens of parts together.

Within just a few hours of the placement of the final handrail, the finished model sat in front and center in front of the city council and a packed crowd of city residents who for the first time ever, were now looking at the proposed development in three dimensions instead of two.  Sure, it’s a cool example of something that was 3D printed, but what is really important is that 3D printing made it possible to be created in the amount of time we had with an incredible level of detail. Being able to include the details made possible by the Ember, allowed the model to convey to everyone in the room the ideas and intent of the property owner and architects in the clearest way possible. Being able to see how each design element relates to each other in a tangible, physical model gave people a new understanding of the proposal and the details allowed them to truly imagine themselves in that space.  They were no longer looking at just two dimensional conceptual drawing of a single perspective, they could look through the windows of one building into another or across from one patio to another and imagine what it will be like to be sitting with a glass of wine and watching the sunset over Lake Pontchartrain with their friends.

As someone who has chosen to live in this city, to raise my family here, and to start a business here, this was an important project to be a part of on a personal level to be able to help improve this city in any way, regardless of scale.