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TT+20: Experts ponder the promise of 3D printing

TT+20: Experts ponder the
promise of 3D printing

| Jul 29, 2015

Earlier this year, international structural engineer Thornton Tomasetti released an annual report that was much more than just numbers and pats on its own back. Instead, the New York City-based firm spoke with several industry experts outside its own doors and published a series of thoughtful articles about where the AEC industry will be in 20 years. Below, we present the second of four excerpts. (The first in the series can be accessed here.)

Q U E S T I O N S

How will 3D printing change the way we think about design and construction?  Where will it gain a foothold?  We asked some of today’s leading theorists and practitioners.

 

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HEDWIG HEINSMAN, co-founder of DUS, the Amsterdam architect of the 3D Print Canal House, an award-winning exhibition and research project that explores the possibilities of 3D printing for architecture. The project team developed a large-scale, mobile 3D printer and is experimenting with new materials, including bio-based and recycled plastics.  

ENRICO DINI, chairman of London-based Monolite UK, Ltd., a pioneer in 3D printing and inventor of the D-Shape building process. He developed a binder material that, when mixed with sand, can print sandstone. Trained as a civil engineer, he worked for years in shoe industry robotics before becoming fascinated by 3D printing. Watch his TEDx talk.

JORDAN BRANDT, technology futurist at Autodesk, San Francisco, CA. He also teaches multidisciplinary design at Stanford University while researching design optimization methods. In 2009, he co-founded Horizontal Systems, which was acquired by Autodesk in 2011, and oversaw the development of Glue, a 3D cloud-collaboration platform that is now BIM 360 Glue

SKYLAR TIBBITS, research scientist, MIT School of Architecture + Planning. He directs MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, a cross-disciplinary research center that focuses on programmable material technologies. With degrees in architecture, design computation and computer science, the TED Fellow is also the founder and principal of SJET, LLC, a multidisciplinary design practice.

AVI REICHENTAL, president and CEO, 3D Systems, Rock Hill SC, since 2003. Under Avi’s leadership, the firm has become a global 3D content-to-print leader, redefining and shaping the industry. In 2014, Popular Mechanics named him one of The Top 25 Makers Who Are Reinventing the American Dream. He also serves as Faculty Chair of Digital Fabrication at Singularity University, and sits on the XPRIZE Foundation innovation board. Watch his TED talk

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AROUND THE WORLD, 3D printing is already moving from R&D labs to the field. We are collaborating on multiple projects to print sustainable, affordable housing in the Middle East, Africa and Haiti and we’re looking ahead to how codes and construction law will affect the advent of 3D printing in the AEC industry. In 2014, we began partnering with Dubai-based WinSun Global as part of a consortium with Gensler and Syska Hennessy Group to develop Project Unicorn, which focuses on 3D printing for low-rise commercial and residential applications. We are validating materials used for printing structural, interior, and exterior components.

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On Materials Science:

BRANDT: Additive manufacturing with computational materials will usher in a new era for engineers. To date, the building industry has relied primarily upon bulk materials with fixed properties. What happens when the molecular composition of each beam, mullion and anchor is bespoke.

DINI: [3D printing] opens a new frontier for understanding the mechanical properties of layered, non-isotropic materials that all start as a slurry. There will need to be much testing to determine variables like density, porosity, compressive and tensile strength and thermal coefficient.

A 3D-printed structure for the affordable housing market in the Middle East. (Photos c/o Gensler)

A 3D-printed structure for the affordable housing market in the Middle East. (Photos c/o Gensler)

TIBBITS: Most building materials today are “dumb.” They passively bear loads or define architectural space or features. Programmable materials have fundamental logic that can respond to moisture, sunlight or temperature to change and transform in useful ways. They could develop into a moisture barrier or acquire specific acoustical properties. Or they could make a steel connection more precise than you could ever do with humans or machines; it could tighten itself up, the way Japanese wood joinery uses water to swell the wood and tighten a joint. That approach has been around for hundreds or thousands of years; we just need to rethink how to apply it.

DINI: People commonly think that a 3D printer can generate any shape – and in theory that’s true. But for buildings, the force of gravity still rules! There are many engineering questions still to be addressed.

WinSun Global: Yingchuang Construction Technique (Shanghai) Co., Ltd., last year used 3D-printing technology to construct 10 houses in under 24 hours. Below, the company then built the world’s tallest 3D printed structure – a five-story apartment building with eight units. Earlier this year, it also finished a 1,100-sq-m stylized mansion. (Top)

WinSun Global: Yingchuang Construction Technique (Shanghai) Co., Ltd., last year used 3D-printing technology to construct 10 houses in under 24 hours. Below, the company then built the world’s tallest 3D printed structure – a five-story apartment building with eight units. Earlier this year, it also finished a 1,100-sq-m stylized mansion. (Top)

On 3D Printing Going Mainstream:

TIBBITS: The industry needs incentives to innovate with new materials. If we can clear that hurdle, we have new opportunities to rethink the design possibilities of the materials we build with. We need to foster relationships between researchers and practitioners and build incentives to actually implement new technologies, and not feel like we’re all going to get sued or lose money if we take intelligent risks.

DINI: The early 3D adopters today are the materials producers, who are interested in testing the potential for their materials in extruded form. Some are the usual players: providers of sand, aggregate, cement, gypsum. But some are not, such as those who make glass microspheres, recycle plastics and collect foundry slag and shredded tires. With crushed tires, for example, you can literally print shock absorbers.

We need to foster relationships between researchers and practitioners and build incentives to actually implement new technologies, and not feel like we’re all going to get sued, or lose money, if we take intelligent risks.
— Skylar Tibbits, MIT Self-Assembly Lab

BRANDT: Investment in materials and rewriting building codes is important. Traditional codes that govern methods and forms of construction will become obsolete and the trend toward replacing them with performance requirements will continue.

DINI: Maybe printers won’t need to be bigger than the object printed. Instead of being enclosed in a gantry, a large-scale printer could be shaped more like a crane.

HEINSMAN: We need to develop the print chain – the entire process that goes from a parametric design to the printer to the material to new ways of construction to distribution. Once all these elements of the building process are integrated into one smart chain, 3D printing will take off.

REICHENTAL: 3D printing is the fastest way to bring a design from idea to reality. It’s abundantly clear that there is no going back to a 2D world.

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ON Changing AEC Practice:

REICHENTAL: 3D printing has already had a huge impact in the fields of architecture, engineering and construction as the technology greatly improves communication in these areas. There is simply no equivalent to having a physical model to present.

DINI: Once the mechanical properties of printed materials become known, structural engineering models will optimize shapes for load bearing to determine what topologies use the least material possible.

Thornton Tomasetti is part of the team that is planning to use 3D printing technology to build an office building in Dubai (Image c/o UAE Innovation Committee)

Thornton Tomasetti is part of the team that is planning to use 3D printing technology to build an office building in Dubai (Image c/o UAE Innovation Committee)

HEINSMAN: The really interesting change is in how 3D printing enables a more networked way of working. It will allow people to have made-to-measure, local solutions instead of pre-fab solutions. We are seeing interest from developing countries, wanting to print with local materials. With a networked printing process, we can communicate with large groups of people and deliver architecture all over the globe.

(3D Printing) will allow people to have made-to-measure, local solutions, instead of pre-fab solutions
— Hedwig Heinsman, DUS Architects Amsterdam

REICHENTAL: 3D printing is an engineer’s dream: it may open up strategies previously inconceivable, like fusing structure and enclosure/fenestration into a single skin. 3D printing removes the barriers to design and manufacturing that once constrained engineers. This will revolutionize engineering as we know it.

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ON How We will Use It:

BRANDT: Ultimately, a building design will become the literal human and machine instructions by which it is built; “design intent” will fade from the architectural vernacular.

DINI: My vision for 3D printing is not a replacement, but an instrument to exploit architectural creativity. It is a tool that artisans can use to produce tailor-made elements. We are already printing building components. Last week we printed a free-form stone wall for an experimental building. We did it in 12 pieces, using 3-x-3-m printers, and assembled them on site to construct the complete shape. This approach is already practical.

HEINSMAN: We will probably see 3D printing emerge for temporary structures, like at festivals or fairs, which have different regulations than permanent structures. You might see them printed with biological, degradable materials, so the structure “melts” after half a year of rain, snow and sunshine. Another frontier will likely be interiors. Imagine a unique, personalized apartment that fits perfectly into the defined space. In Europe, we also have a lot of heritage buildings. It’s more interesting to keep them instead of tearing them down. You just scan the interiors and print a new infill.

DINI: One interesting potential is if the façade is printed as the face of the structure, it may no longer need to be “engineered” in the sense we know today. It may become more of a materials property question, as you change material to be extruded for the façade portion. Now we have constraints on shape related to the manufacturing process, but a printed façade could allow a more direct link between the mind of the designer and the materialization.

HEINSMAN: We’re now designing façades with integrated 3D printed solar panels, and the solar angle can be optimized automatically – for example, for Amsterdam or New York or Rio de Janeiro. It saves you having to create a separate set of forms or molds for each setting. Instead, you can easily execute unique shapes.

To read the rest of this wide-ranging discussion, and more, visit the Thornton Tomasetti site here.

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