May 4, 2017 | By Benedict

Swedish construction company Skanska, alongside a group of partners that includes Foster + Partners, Tarmac, ABB, and Loughborough University, is using a six-axis robotic arm to 3D print concrete. It has received a grant from Innovate UK to industrialize the process.

Skanska is working with Loughborough University and other partners to develop concrete 3D printing technology

It was all the way back in 2014 when we reported on multinational construction company Skanska working with the UK’s Loughborough University to develop a concrete 3D printing robot.

The world was a simpler place then: the consumer 3D printing market was riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave, there seemed minimal threat of nuclear warfare, and all your favorite musicians and actors were still alive.

Things have moved on. But for Skanska, which hasn’t been one the loudest voices in construction 3D printing over the last few years, everything is coming together rather nicely: its refined 3D printing robot is now able to fabricate precise concrete structures—mostly cladding for buildings—using various concrete mixes.

Amazingly, it’s also been a whole 10 years since Loughborough University started carrying out serious research into 3D printed concrete, with Skanska joining forces with the British school several years later. According to Skanska, that comprehensive level of research can be seen in the printing.

The project even borrows on the expertise of several other parties: UK building materials company Tarmac has pitched in to provide the concrete mixes, architecture studio and fellow British business Foster + Partners is carrying out component designs, while Swedish-Swiss robotics specialist ABB is providing equipment.

The focus for Skanska is currently on 3D printing “very difficult precast components, with overlays and voids" rather than “whole buildings.” Those are the words of Skanska innovation manager David Lewis, who recently spoke with Construction News about the status of the company’s research.

At the center of proceedings is, of course, the six-axis robotic arm 3D printer, which has been around for several years but which is now able to print with several kinds of concrete mixes. While there are no photos of the current machine in action, Construction News discerned that the arm of the machine pours concrete in thin strips, layer by layer, to build a stable 3D printed structure.

According to Skanska, building this 3D printing robot was actually the easy part.

Skanska also used 3D printing to create nodes for the roof of 6 Bevis Marks in London

It’s the concrete 3D printing materials that have caused the researchers more trouble. The mixture needs to be solid enough to support a printed layer on top of it, but not so hard that the layers don’t bond with one another.

“The reliability of the mix is definitely the biggest challenge,” Lewis said, adding that the 3D printable concrete comes out at around 10 kN of strength, with the thickness able to be set at 9, 10, 15 or 20 mm.

Luckily, being able to demonstrate its concrete 3D printer in action has helped Skanska attract the interest of potential customers, including Highways England, the government-owned company that manages roads and motorways in England.

But before it makes any final deals, Skanska still has lots of testing to do. At present, the company is still seeing what shapes it can make using its 3D printing system. Most prints have so far been cladding, coating for buildings and other structures, rather than load-bearing structural elements, but this could change in the future. The company is even trying to 3D print with rebar, a kind of steel used to reinforce concrete.

Turning this research project into a viable production tool is now on the horizon for Skanska, and the company has received a grant from Innovate UK to help industrialize the process.

The Swedish construction giant is also getting help from the Manufacturing Technology Center, itself supported by Innovate UK, a place where businesses and academics can take advantage of cutting-edge manufacturing technologies.

There, Skanska is working with a diverse network of experts to share ideas and technology in order to advance its concrete 3D printing system. This, Skanska says, is a more productive strategy than keeping its ideas on lockdown.

“We can’t be insular and think the improvements we’re starting to see will transform us,” said executive vice president Thomas Faulkner. “The aerospace and automotive industries were equally competitive environments 10-15 years ago, but they came to the recognition that, if they wanted to deliver better value for customers, they needed to be more collaborative.”

If Britain starts 3D printing its highways in 10 years time, it will probably have Skanska to thank.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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