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3D Printing is Revolutionizing Concrete

Technology is not only changing the way we live but the way we build. The construction industry is adapting, albeit slowly and cautiously, to the latest technologies.

Since 2207, a team from the School of Civil and Building Engineering at Loughborough University in the U.K. have been working on developing computer controlled 3D concrete printers and recently adapted them to work with a robotic arm. This state-of-the-art technology allows them to print up to 10 times faster and allows them to create architectural features, curved, geometrically complex, hollow and complex concrete designs.

Skanska's robotic arm for 3D printing.

Skanska’s robotic arm for 3D printing.

Professor Simon Austin, lead researcher says,

I think that companies who become early adaptors of 3D printing will lean a huge amount about automation and robotics and how they can be exploited on a site.

The team reached fame on You tube with a video showing their process by obtaining over a half a million viewers. Professor Austin says,

I am still trying to get my head around the fact that a video about concrete – a material normally seen as boring – has so many views.

Concrete is interesting because most building constructed around the world are made of mostly steel and concrete. It has proven durable with high mechanical performance and can be made aesthetically-pleasing.

In China, they are experimenting with building entire structure using 3D printed concrete with thought of it alleviating the future need of housing as the world’s population increases. Professor Austin, however, views #D printed concrete as a way of creating key components of a building, not the entire building.

Rob Francis, Skanska’s director of innovation says,

3D concrete printing, when combined with a type of mobile prefabrication center, has the potential to reduce the time needed to create complex elements of buildings from weeks to hours. We expect to achieve a level of quality and efficiency, which has never been seen before in construction.

3D printed concrete sample

3D printed concrete sample

Professor Austin adds,

I am not convinced that 3D printed concrete would appeal to the high-end of the housing market and in the developing world, labor is cheap and they have developed ways of building homes with local materials that have worked for hundreds of years. So the idea of bringing in a gantry and printing machine to a site to print whole houses is a bit far-fetched. On the other hand, printing building components where a variety of geometry is sought is an attractive approach that will soon be realized.

The team is building an industry prototype 3D printer that is being tested at the Manufacturing Technology Center in Coventry, the U.K. This is the team’s first collaboration with the construction industry. They are working with the construction form, Skanska, famous architects Foster and Partners, materials supplier Tarmac and Scandinavian robotics firm ABB.