What do the automotive, furniture, and footwear industries have in common with hotels and hospitality? Hotel design teams may very well know the answer to that question. As dissimilar as those sectors may seem, hotels have joined companies like Aston Martin, GM, and Black and Decker (and many other diverse businesses) to explore the high-tech world of three-dimensional rapid prototyping for cutting-edge design projects.
Despite being used for decades in mechanical and electronic capacities, rapid prototyping is starting to become a familiar step in the design process for many companies—and that now includes major hotels and resorts.
For the uninitiated, rapid prototyping is a technology that elevates a 2D drawing, or rendering, of a floor plan to the next level by creating computer-generated physical 3D scale models of just about anything an engineer, architect, or designer needs for a project. Rapid prototyping enables special 3D files to be “printed” in a hard material, like polyurethane plastic, to create small models of designs. For a hotel company, these models could be a lobby, guestroom, restaurant, or other spaces, along with their accompanying pieces of furniture. Creating scale models allows both the designers and stakeholders to more efficiently evaluate the design in advance, and make minimal adjustments before full-scale prototypes are built.
Erin Hoover, the vice president of global brand design for Starwood’s Sheraton and Westin brands, recently incorporated rapid prototyping into the design process for the Link@Sheraton lobby renovation project, which will eventually transform and upgrade all the Sheraton lobbies around the world. This marked the first time the company used this 3D design system. For the Link project, the scale model was created as a complete high-end lobby with furniture, including chairs, tables, desks, couches, and room dividers such as columns.
Hoover’s team developed a floor plan scale size of 10 feet by 4 feet (similar to an oversized dollhouse) with a furniture display that replicates in miniature how the finished lobby will appear. It also features the important walls and columns to show the accurate architectural dimensions of the space.
“The beauty of rapid prototyping is that you can get all the details that you would see in a full-scale piece in a smaller version,” Hoover explains. “It allowed us to really understand what would be successful and what adjustments were needed. Nothing compares to having something that is three-dimensional.”
Hoover and her four-person design team are based in White Plains, N.Y. They introduced rapid prototyping into this project so that the entire Sheraton team involved in the project would be able to clearly “see” the lobby evolve. It is a tactile experience for the entire team, as the pieces of model furniture possess all the details of the final product, and can be easily picked up and moved around by hand, if desired.
“As designers, one of the biggest challenges we face is that it is hard for people to visualize things in 3D,” she says. “We really wanted to make sure we were very confident about the design, and we also needed a way to show them how it might work in the lobby. This is another reason why rapid prototyping is very appealing. People instinctively understand these models, as opposed to 2D renderings. It is convincing and allows us to sell our concept to the end-users.”
SAVING TIME AND EXPENSE
Another benefit of rapid prototyping is that it saved Hoover and team a tremendous amount of time and expenses. By using this process, they successfully condensed their timeline for the entire project. Without rapid prototyping, ordering actual full-size furniture requires more time due to the fabrication process, but rapid prototyping allows the project’s scale materials to have a quick turnaround.
She explains that the initial design process for the Link began in mid-2010. When the 3D files were finished, the scale models arrived in a flash—less than a week. “We had a full set of lobby furniture in five days. In fact, we launched the specifications at the beginning of this year, and we just installed our first new Link lobby at the Sheraton in Stamford, Conn., which opened in July 2011. It looks fantastic and exactly like what we laid out in the scale version,” Hoover says.
“Normally, hospitality companies who are producing furniture go through two or three rounds of full-size prototypes,” she adds. “Using rapid prototyping enabled us to cut it down to one round. We used a lot less materials, and we only shipped things once.”
In addition to saving time and money, as well as helping to identify and address potential problems quickly and efficiently, rapid prototyping makes a lot of sense from a sustainable standpoint as well, as it reduces the need for raw materials to be shipped potentially long distances.
“You can’t underplay the sustainable side of rapid prototyping,” Hoover says. “People are more conscious of that today, and we were determined to reduce waste during this project. I did not want our design process to have leftover materials if we could still deliver the kind of product that our owners and internal teams were expecting of us. It allows us to really understand the design and potential flaws early in the process and enables everyone to visualize what we are designing in a realistic way.”
Rapid prototyping afforded the Link project flow to have a logical, consistent progression, giving everyone a solid sense of the look and feel of the finished space and, most importantly, how it will appeal to guests.
“This is the first time we have used rapid prototyping and we will be using it next for guestrooms. We were very pleased with the results, and it was a very successful way for us—and our stakeholders—to understand the design,” Hoover says. “Our next phase of guestroom design will be in the middle of next year and we will absolutely use rapid prototyping for that.”
Ed Von Bergen is the director of sales and marketing for Designcraft Inc., a 30-year-old Illinois-based prototype manufacturer that works primarily with designers who are creating new product concepts. Designcraft takes the 3D files provided by the designers and creates objects that have never before existed, such as lamps, tables, and chairs for the Link lobby.
“Rapid prototyping has been around for decades, and more people are becoming aware of it,” Von Bergen says. “For the hotel industry, Sheraton is on the cutting edge of using this technology for the lobby layout decision-making process.
“Product design professionals come to us for help in visualizing what their end product would look like,” he continues. “These models help people make big decisions with less risk.”
Designcraft prototyped the original “brick” cell phone, the famed DynaTAC 8000X, in 1984. It handles a lot of consumer electronics projects and many clients are confidential with projects shrouded in secrecy.
“About 98 percent to 99 percent of our work is covered by non-disclosure agreements, as they are not yet on the market,” Von Bergen says.
Not surprisingly, the cost of rapid prototyping projects varies. According to Von Bergen, a piece of furniture, such as a desk or chair, is normally priced at approximately $200 to $500 each, depending on the scale size, and how many parts are ordered. He points out that the material used, resin, is very expensive, so he usually suggests a smaller size, such as 1/12 scale, as it is more budget-friendly.
Designers believe rapid prototyping is poised to become more prevalent in the hotel industry in years to come.