After revolutionizing manufacturing, 3D Printing has begun the colonization of the architecture and construction industries.
Structural engineers nowadays are confronted with a shift of mind in the building industry. The need for a sustainable method of construction has prompted every discipline involved in the construction cycle. A new way of construction is required, which can only be achieved if the building industry embraces the strange and keeps an eye on new and upcoming techniques.
3D Printing of concrete structures is one of these on-going high-tech developments in today’s construction technology. The advantages are clear: high speed construction, no need of formwork, less heavy labour and most of all a great increase of freedom to design. This technique allows for mass customization, as it does not require every (structural) element of a building to be identical, for matters of speed or costs. Besides, as the printer only prints where it is desired, solid and massive structures are no longer required. 3D Printing creates new shapes in an efficient manner, answering to the call for a more sustainable built environment.
Progress in 3D printing developments happens rapidly. The technique has shown its potential in a wide range of disciplines, varying from the medical world to the food industry and from aerospace engineering to household uses. The current state of the technique even allows people to have a 3D printer at their homes for an affordable price. The construction industry too wants a share of the pie and aims to apply 3D printing on a larger scale. A handful of companies and institutes spread around the world have already been showing the prospects of concrete printing.
The American contractor Andrey Rudenko has founded TotalKustom (TK), a company that is able to print structures. Similar developments are seen in China, where Yingchuang has constructed large parts of 3D printed buildings and assembles them on site. Their huge concrete printer (150 x 10 x 6.6 m) uses construction waste materials mixed with cement and glass fibre reinforcement.
Apis Cor, a San Francisco-based 3D-printing startup showed that concrete walls for a small house can be 3D printed in under 24 hours. The firm “printed” a 400 sqft house on a test site in Russia using a 3D-printer to lay down the concrete walls. The printer, which resembles a small crane, places layers of a concrete mixture. The company claims the mixture can last for 175 years and after the walls have been laid, the printer has been removed and insulation, windows, appliances and a roof have been added.
Another examples is the Landscape House – a möbius strip-shaped building designed by Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars. The plan is to print it in one go with a huge 3D printer created by Italian roboticist Enrico Dini.
Ruijssenaars’ “freedom of form” means we can now produce things that previously were impossible to make. And that could change, well, everything.
The designer worked with the Royal BAM Group as they designed a giant automated 3D printer to complete the project, inspired by the design of the D-Shape printer, using techniques similar to that of an inkjet printer, allowing for a bonding liquid to be applied to sand, rapidly hardening into the desired shape. Layers can be as thin as 5mm, and its huge frame can handle objects as large as six metres in each dimension. Each one can handle as much as 2,500m2 of material per year, which is the equivalent of 12 small houses.
The European Space Agency, with Foster + Partners, is looking into the same technology as a way of building future moon bases. They plan on building lunar colonies using 3D-printed bricks made out of moon dust
Foster + Partners won a competition by the ESA to conduct research into 3D printing in space. They have printed a 1.5 tonne to show their and the consortium partners’ – the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna and Altawork – work so far.
Foster + Partners devised a weight-bearing ‘catenary’ dome design with a cellular structured wall to shield against micrometeoroids and space radiation, incorporating a pressurised inflatable to shelter astronauts. A hollow closed-cell structure – reminiscent of bird bones – provides a good combination of strength and weight.
A similar project, was a classic canal house in Amsterdam by DUS Architects, printed by its pavilion that prints other pavilions. The Kamermaker, their printer, stands inside a 3.5m tall silver container on the canal, with the architects inviting the public to watch as they test, refine and test again each new iterative development of the printer. The word Kamermaker is Dutch for “room maker” and while it can’t print an entire room in one piece, it can print large components. The build area for the KamerMaker is 6.6 ft x 6.6ft x 11.5ft and the printer is enclosed within a movable metal pavilion. The plan is to use the printer for emergency relief and to print houses.
Even more radical though, would be Softkill Design’s Protohouse which would be impossible with bricks and mortar. The Protohouse 1.0 is a rendered-and-printed scale model of a home constructed out of 30 interlocking pieces. According to Sophia Tang, one of the four members of Softkill Design says,”A lot of people describe it as a scary monster, this super-fibrous house. It came about because the program we wrote actually tells us that’s the most structurally efficient structure because you don’t need to build a whole solid material too.” The algorithm used to build the Protohouse mimics the structure of bone to find the optimum balance between structural strength and shape.
ProtoHouse 2.0 builds upon the research and development of the first model to provide a house that, people could download and print for themselves. Even if someone doesn’t want the whole house, they’d be able to download individual items and use them to upgrade their own home.
More recently, researchers from the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab have unveiled a free-moving robotic system to print houses.
The system consists of a tracked vehicle that carries a large, industrial robotic arm, which has a smaller, precision-motion robotic arm at its end. This highly controllable arm can then be used to direct any conventional (or unconventional) construction nozzle, such as those used for pouring concrete or spraying insulation material, as well as additional digital fabrication end effectors, such as a milling head. Unlike typical 3-D printing systems, most of which use some kind of an enclosed, fixed structure to support their nozzles and are limited to building objects that can fit within their overall enclosure, this free-moving system can construct an object of any size.
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The ultimate vision is in the future, to have something totally autonomous, that you could send to the moon or Mars or Antarctica, and it would just go out and make these buildings for years.
There is a wide range of views about where the technology could be headed. Some think that 3D printers will be used mainly to print building components and panels either in factories or on site, while others envision 3D printing as a transformative technology that could revolutionize the construction industry. One thing is for sure though, in the future, we are going to be pressing the ‘Print‘ button a lot more than we do now!
This article build upon the following works: