The beautifully dressed receptionist at architecture firm Aedas’ office looks as though she is part of an artwork, as she sits immaculately poised behind a two-meter high silver frame on the 31st floor of one of Hong Kong’s sparkling skyscrapers.
The imaginatively designed armchairs and sofas, soft rugs and stylish lamps in the reception area makes it feel like a hotel lobby. It is obvious that design is at the heart of the firm.
That’s why it’s interesting when Benny Chow, director of sustainability at Aedas, explains that 3D printing is key to the company’s new design strategy.
“We are architects, and we love and understand design. But all customers do not understand design. By using 3D printers and models, we can explain and illustrate our thoughts,” he says. “It makes it easier for our clients to understand and to make decisions.”
Aedas is the world’s fifth-largest architectural and design company with some of Asia’s most spectacular and award-winning skyscrapers and shopping malls on its list of credits. Some 650 people work at its office in Hong Kong, and as many in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Singapore.
Six years ago, the company rolled out a wide-ranging project to introduce 3D printing technology at all its offices in China.
Chow, who also is an honorary associate professor at the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Hong Kong and has been experimenting with 3D printers for over 15 years, explains that the transition has been revolutionizing for the company’s work process.
He remembers the very first time he organized an internal workshop to explain the 3D method, and how Aedas’ chairman, Keith Griffiths, held a printed model in his hand and studied it carefully.
“He just said ‘wow,’” Chow recalls. “It was the starting point for an entirely new approach to how we work. It created a new dimension”.
Today, all newly recruited architects and designers are immediately trained on how to use 3D printers and its software, as well as how the company uses the technology as an integral part of the design process. Six times a year, continuing courses are conducted across all offices.
As we walk through the company’s open office landscape, where well- dressed architects and designers sit in long rows, printed prototypes of different construction projects can be seen on each and every other table.
Chow is obviously passionate. He holds up a prototype of an airport terminal against the sun and a shadow game displays on the table. “Look how beautiful they are, almost as beautiful as the real buildings,” he said.
We move on to the room where its four 3D printers are. The air is dry and hot. The machines are swishing and whooshing, and behind the box glasses one can see how models of different projects are slowly building up, layer by layer. The details are meticulous and each layer is 0.25mm.
The machines run around the clock, all year round.
“When we go home in the evening to sleep, the printers are still awake. They never sleep. We never turn them off,” he says.
The biggest advantage of 3D printers is that the interaction with clients becomes more dynamic and communication more clear, he explains. This leads to faster decisions, and fewer misconceptions and mistakes.
Cost-wise, the investment in 3D technology is minimal compared with the savings, Chow explains. If a client decides to initiate a construction project two or three months earlier in the process than usual, all total costs for all 3D printers have been covered.
An additional advantage is that it is easier to make adjustments in a 3D printed model, than to build a whole new prototype in other materials. At the same time, communication has improved with engineers and construction workers compared to before the 3D method was rolled out in 2011.
“The models become as a common language that everyone understands. It creates commitment and increased efficiency, which leads to lower costs and a better environment,” Chow says. “For us, 3D printers are a super tool.”