3D printing for architects
The advent of 3D printing for architects has expanded the field exponentially, leaving teams of designers vying to complete the first habitable, printed structure.
In January, Universal Architects, a Dutch studio, designed a two-storey house resembling a "Möebius Strip". It is to be printed in concrete on-site. Soon after, UK architects Softkill Design revealed "Protohouse 2.0", a single-storey plan made of plastic. Its fibrous structure will be crafted in easily connectable sections.
Möebius Strip: When there is no beginning or ending.
Following these developments, Amsterdam-based DUS Architects proposed to print an entire canal-boat dwelling from a homemade printer housed in a reappropriated shipping container. Another project by MIT researchers concerns alternative production processes. In one of their projects, a robotic arm will weave a small pavilion in the manner of a silkworm.
A degree of scepticism lingers around these unprecedented projects. Up to now, only relatively small objects have been produced; however, additive manufacturing has transformed the world of 3D printing.
Softkill Design's Gilles Retsin states that, "when we started our research, we were dealing in science fiction". Nowadays, digital construction modes mark a new epoch in construction. According to MIT Media Lab's Neri Oxman, ''prior to the industrial revolution, hand-production methods were abundant. Craft defined everything. The craftsman had an almost phenomenological knowledge of materials and intuited how to vary their properties according to their structural and environmental characteristics." Today, revolutions in technology help to combine craft and industry. This undoubtedly raises the question concerning whether 3d printing for architects is the best option.
The largest 3D printer in the world sits in a warehouse in Pisa. It belongs to Enrico Dini, an Italian robotics engineer. He created D-Shape, which uses sand and a chemical binding agent to create synthetic sandstone. This material results when layers of sand and magnesium are fused with chlorine. This process is repeated to produce up to 30 cubic metres a week. Dini is credited as being the first to produce a large-structure successfully. He has also worked on a simple mountain hut printed in a singular form. Containing a sink, worktop and a bed, cracks during transportation led Dini to believe that building in sections is a more reliable method. He is of the opinion that machines the likes of D-Shape could become mobile, with the additional possibility of using them in producing ''not only buildings, but entire urban sections''.
In Dini's work on the Landscape House project, two printers will produce concrete-filled parts which can them be connected. This modular structure is a flexible design option that will cost approximately EUR5 million and take up to a year to produce.
On the other hand, 3D printing experts fail to acknowledge this modular process as a true method. As Gilles Retsin iterates, ''they're 3D-printing formwork, then pouring concrete into the form. So it's not that the actual building is 3D-printed.". Retsin prefers to work in a factory where bioplastics are used in conjunction with lasers. This method allows fibres to be crafted much thinner when compared to sand-based processes.
The advantages of 3D printing
3D printing allows greater structural efficiency. Forms are constructed using precise algorithms that deposit material in only the essential places. In contrast with steel or concrete, 3D printing for architects offers greater potential than ever before.
Softkill Design's single-storey house will be printed in small sections and joined with velcro-like fibres. Each 2.5 metre section forms an 8 by 5 metre house that can be built in 24 hours. Retsin writes that 3D printing saves time, labour and transportation costs. Even so, 3D printing remains more expensive than using traditional materials. This due to material costs rather than volume. For Retsin, ''The onus is on producing thin, porous structures that minimise production costs''.
Combining polypropylene with recycled plastics, DUS Architects are employing an 3D printer to produce 3.5 metre components. The project aims to discuss contemporary movements in design and construction through a series of workshops. On the topic of construction methodology, DUS Architects' Hedwig Heinsman is of the opinion that, "3D printing is not going to replace brick and concrete buildings. I think it's more going to be the case that we'll start printing brick and concrete."
Inspiration from nature
The Mediated Matter group at MIT takes inspiration from biological fabrication for its research in innovative processes. Despite the rapid evolution of 3D printing technology, ''there are many limitations, as Neri Oxman says. These limitations include the materials available, production sizes and also the speed of production. The MIT group are currently looking at materials that offer multiple characteristics. These materials allow for the printing of skin and bone-like materials with a greater potential for construction.
Giving specific properties to materials is hard to achieve with today's 3D printers. This is mainly due to restrictions in their movement. Oxman intends to expand movement capabilities by placing a 3D printer on a six-axis robotic arm.
Bombyx mori silkworms deposits silk fiber on a digitally-fabricated scaffolding structure. Image: Steven Keating - Mediated Matter group
Concerning her team's ''Silkworm'' house, the manufacturing process can be likened to a silkworm binding a coccoon. The silk gradients are varied to produce a soft interior with a hard shell that is bonded with a sticky gum. Oxman translated the head movements of a silkworm to a 3D printer to reproduce this natural method of construction. This process will be put to the test in April, when a 3.6 metre pavilion will be constructed using natural silk.
As robotic arms offer greater flexibility in the performance and variety of construction methods, these weaving techniques may in the future become commonplace. Terms such as ''swarm construction'', ''4D printing'' and ''CNC weaving'' are used by Oxman when giving her outlook on future developments. ''If we consider swarm construction, we are truly pushing building technology into the 21st century''. Following Oxman's perspective, the key is to combine large-scale 3D printing techniques with natural processes in the same way a silkworm builds a coccoon.
View through pavilion apertures as the silkworms skin the structure. Image: Steven Keating - Mediated Matter grou
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