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3D printer, 3D home, computer screen and blueprints, large-scale automated construction conceptDo you think of a 3D printer as a kind of office machine that prints small objects in a confined boxy space? During the last few years, they’ve proven extremely helpful in making construction-related objects such as architectural models and prototypes of tools, fasteners and other small objects, even in designer new brick shapes. These desktop printers usually use plastic as their medium, although some larger printers can use glass, ceramic or special metals. 3D printers are more formally called additive printers. Unlike traditional tools like lathes that remove material to create an object, additive printers add thin layers of material on top of each other to create objects. Now additive printing is leaving the desktop and moving onto the construction site where it can be used to print large building components or even entire buildings.

Construction Scale:

The technology of building-scale printing is just getting started, but a number of different techniques have already been developed for both off-site and on-site construction. These large-scale machines use industrial robots, gantry crane systems, and tethered self-driving vehicles to create the printed structures.

The types of massive 3D printers necessary to print out a building look like hoses attached to a computer-controlled articulating arm, and they use familiar building compounds like concrete. The building construction robot is a dome-like structure 12 feet high and 50 feet in diameter. It is designed to construct an entire building in less than 14 hours. The prototype, designed in the MIT laboratory, is essentially a vehicle with a large industrial arm for reach and a smaller, more dexterous arm for detail. The smaller arm can be fitted with welding systems or a spray head that extrudes building materials like foam.

History of Large-Scale Automated Construction:

Attempts to automate construction are not exactly new. Robotic bricklaying was explored as early as 1952 with Hadrian, the brick-laying robot. Hadrian was supposed to be able to “[scan] its surroundings to work out exactly where to place bricks,” using the simple computer technology of its time. A family of technologies was tried that were forerunners of 3D printing during the 1960s, with pumped concrete and isocyanate foams. Early experiments in robotic assembly of components were tried in Japan during the 1980s and 1990s. Many of these experiments foundered because of economic conditions in the construction industry and because of their inability to adapt to novel architectures.

Real experiments in 3D printing on a construction scale began in 1995. One method, never actually demonstrated, used a sand/cement forming technique that applied steam to “selectively bond” the material in layers. Contour Crafting was patented in 1995 by Behronk Khoshnevis and a team at USC Vertibi. They used ceramic and cement pastes. The technology was never tested beyond laboratory scale.

State of the Art:

In 2003, Robert Soar’s freeform construction group at Loughborough University, UK, moved outside the laboratory and built a large-scale 3D printing machine using concrete pumps, spray concrete, and a gantry system to test ways additive printing techniques could meet the demands of real-world construction. In 2014, the Loughborough technology was sold to Skanska which began the actual construction of building components using 3D printing techniques. These include a mansion style villa, a five-story office tower, and a 2,700 square-foot Museum of the Future in Dubai. This year, Skanska is working on a “printed skyscraper” (with details unspecified).  Meanwhile, FreeFAB is using 3D printing technology to make precision molds to economically create customized concrete components for use in building construction.

Practical Applications for the Masonry Industry:

Many companies are offering off-the-shelf equipment to 3D print architectural detail and structures made of concrete or concrete-like materials that can be custom designed and installed into construction at a fraction of the cost of hand cutting or molding. Structural details can be designed in novel forms that increase their rigidity and strength to fit exactly into ongoing projects. Hollow, interlocking masonry-like construction components can be specifically designed to include electrical, plumbing and air passage spaces in one unit to simplify construction. Developers are working on novel designs of “emerging objects” that can be 3D printed and incorporated into buildings. A team of California-based designers, for instance, have invented earthquake-proof columns built of 3D printed sand to withstand the harshest seismic activity.

3D printing in the construction industry opens the field of custom component design to all professionals in the construction industry who want to add unique detail and novel features into their buildings. For designers who are looking for new ways to express their design visions, 3D printing makes it possible to create shapes and structures that are impossible using traditional building techniques.

For masons who are looking to expand their value in the marketplace, look at how you can become expert at installing 3D printed masonry details and walls. As the shortage of masons continues, designers will look for alternatives to traditional masonry structures, so any mason that can expand his or her capabilities into areas like 3D printed buildings is much more likely to prosper.

Mortar Net Solutions is the industry leader in moisture management solutions for masonry walls, including cavity, single-wythe CMU and adhered masonry walls. Every masonry wall type, whether formed traditionally or by 3D printing, will need to have a system for collecting and removing moisture that gets behind the veneer to keep it beautiful and a source of pride for the designer, contractor and building owner. Please contact us to learn how we can help you keep the masonry walls you build dry and trouble-free.

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