Nov.21, 2014

Modern Architecture is demanding new developments in construction manufacturing technology. Skanska, a multinational construction and development company based in Sweden, where it also is the largest construction company, has signed an agreement with the UK's Loughborough University to develop, build, and commercialize a 3D concrete printing robot.

The team at Loughborough's Innovative Manufacturing and Construction Research Centre (IMCRC), led by Dr Richard Buswell and Professor Simon Austin, has been working on lab-based 3D cement printing since 2007.

Named Freeform Construction, the project gives architects a tremendous degree of design freedom. In the process, concrete is deposited in layers very precisely from computer-generated instructions. These machines can be used to solve some of the complexity issues found in construction if they can be scaled up to produce massive parts out of appropriate material.

In 2010 a one-tonne reinforced concrete bench has been printed and a year later a two square meter "S"-curved panel is exhibited in the Building Centre. Currently the team is working on developing new additive manufacturing processes capable of producing components in a build volume of up to 2m x 2.5m x 5m.

Over the past five years the team had received multiple enquiries from construction companies and designers about possible collaborations, but they found Skanska the best fit for them for its vision and the supply chain that would be needed.

"We have been constantly approached by people interested in what we were doing, some in fairly large organisations, but Skanska showed serious interest in the potential and took the approach of building a consortium of parties around the technology to develop a commercial version of our lab prototype," said Dr. Richard Buswell from the university.

"Construction is still craft-based and conservative, while this requires digital modelling, digital control and robotics – it does things differently and requires the design of the components to be different."

"So we don't just need one partner, we need a whole bunch of skills, in materials and concrete batching, in robotics and component manufacturing."

They have also been working on the collaboration with Buchan Concrete, ABB, Lafarge Tarmac, and Foster + Partners architect and design firm to complete the 3D printing supply chain for the concrete 3D printing robot. Buchan Concrete will contribute with knowledge and expertise in precast techniques, and ABB can offer expertise in robotics and control systems.

Buswell has suggested that within the next 12 to 18 months the team's 3D printing technology can be utilized to create 3D printed concrete components. But that a fully capable off-site, near-site on even on-site 3D printing system would take longer to develop.

As he puts it, "Cladding the next Gherkin is clearly some way down the line, but on smaller-scale exploratory stuff, like an architectural feature, we could run as fast as the industry wants to take it – perhaps a year. We'll be exploring specific applications with the [Skanska] group – we've taken it as far as it can as an academic project, now we need that guidance from industry."

Rob Francis, Skanska's director of innovation and business improvement, is very optimistic about the 3D printing's potential to revolutionize the construction process. He said: "3D concrete printing, when combined with a type of mobile prefabrication centre, has the potential to reduce the time needed to create complex elements of buildings from weeks to hours. We expect to achieve a level of quality and efficiency which has never been seen before in construction."

Posted in 3D Printers


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