3D printing is often hailed as a revolutionary technology. It might become the next home computer or desktop printer — both of which changed the way we work and play. The evolution of computers sets a precedent for how 3D printers will progress: before the PC and Macintosh came along, scientists used enormous mainframe computers that took up entire rooms. The research that miniaturized these technologies to make them consumer-ready was what really changed the world.
A 3D concrete printer.
That is the impetus behind a development agreement between construction company Skanska, London architecture firm Foster + Partners, and researchers at Loughborough University (LU). The collaboration aims to bring 3D printing to architecture, by refining a prototype robotic printer and establishing the supply chain necessary for the printing process. Skanska, along with Foster + Partners, has already been developing the technology in conjunction with Buchan Concrete and Lafarge Tarmac.
In order for 3D printing to realize its potential as a limitless technology for the masses, the companies creating the printers need to improve their resolution for consumer-grade printers and make them more affordable. NASA has just recently printed an object in space, while several small residences have been built at "low-resolution," i.e., with minimal detail. Currently, 3D printing technology is still in the phase of experimentation and largely relegated to the realm of the fantastic, but Foster and the firm's collaborators want to change that.
A prototype segment made with the 3D printer under development.
The concrete printer in development would make much more complex structural shapes possible. Customizable full-scale sections printed on-site would allow architects to make buildings that are only imaginable today. In the last decade, the possibilities for fabrication have become much more closely aligned with architects' imaginations. When these printers are accessible to more builders, a wider audience will be able to take advantage of the potential of 3D printing and the associated design vocabulary. Eventually, these developments would lower the costs of 3D printing for architecture and — at some point in the future — make the platform more comparable to smartphones and laptops than NASA technologies.
Cross-section of a building segment made with a 3D printer.
And these printers wouldn't merely bring complex new shapes and systems to the industry. They would also make what we already create much quicker and easier to produce. “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," said Skanska's Rob Francis in a press release. “We expect to achieve a level of quality and efficiency which has never been seen before in construction.”
Software used for 3D printing, showing a prototype segment that was produced.