Sep 6, 2016 | By Nick

3D printing is now breathing new life into the oceans of Dubai and Italy with a new breed of artificial reefs that provide more realistic levels of texture and detail.

Sydney architect James Gardiner perfected the technique for making the artificial reefs from individual blocks. Together with David Lennon’s Reef Design Labs, he designed a series of low-cost reef units that can help combat the effects of reef erosion and protect the underwater environment.

First he makes wax molds with what his company Laing O’Rourke claims is the world’s largest 3D printer assembly. Then he injected reformed sandstone material to create ornate, intricate and textured reef components.

The 3D printing process allowed the team to create complex organic-structures that look far more natural than the alternative steel or concrete components. They also present far more usable surface area for coral regrowth.

Biologist James Smith, from the University of New South Wales, told The Syndney Morning Herald: “The designed reefs we typically deploy lack much surface texture, and we notice that the marine life that colonises these reef surfaces can sometimes fall off. This could be reduced with more complex surface textures.

"The current prefab steel and concrete structures are likely to be the go-to for some time, but I would love to see some more innovation of surface textures of these prefab reefs. 3D printing may be a great way to explore this."

These novel reef blocks come with integrated caves and tunnels. The material does not produce greenhouse gases like concrete and the variation means that the individual blocks look more natural in situ. That is good for the tourist industry, as reef tours through a sea of cubes and pyramids just aren’t the same.

"Most artificial reefs use simple, cheap materials that are simplistic and homogenous. They are not well suited for their purpose," Dr Gardiner said. "Real reef assemblage is complex and multifunctional."

The rough texture of his reef components, as well as the intricate structure and inherent porosity of the sandstone, give the coral and other underwater flora a solid anchor point so that they can take hold and start a new life in their new home.

"What I loved and was excited about was that James' 3D printed reefs allowed for a more organic and natural structure," Mr Lennon said. "The complexity of structure in a reef relates to the species diversity. But these structures aren't just good for the fish and coral, the aesthetics of it are good as well."

Reefs prevent the sea level from rising and form a haven for a vast number of species. They are disappearing at a frightening rate.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef boasted 50% coverage in the 1960s and that is down to 16% now. Storms, disease, bleaching and pollution have all played their part, but the coral eating crown of thorns starfish is the main reason why the world’s greatest reef is effectively dying.

Anything we can do to encourage and foster reef growth, even though it’s artificial, will help to preserve the underwater biodiversity and prevent whole species dying out.

So we love the concept from a conservation standpoint, but Laing O’Rourke isn’t just interested in saving the Earth. It wants to revolutionize the construction industry.

Australia’s largest privately owned construction solutions consultancy is about to reveal the world’s largest 3D printer and has worked on its patented FreeFAB wax technology could open up a wealth of new construction techniques.

It’s a relatively simple idea, creating custom wax molds for more organic, flowing designs and then producing large-scale buildings from individual building blocks. This gives architects and construction companies much more freedom when it comes to the initial design of a new building.

Laing O’Rourke has made its name in bespoke design, creating the first circular building in the Middle East for Aldar Properties and taking the lead in the construction of London’s Canary Wharf as R’O’Rourke and son before the merger with John Laing PLC in 2001.

Construction techniques that are often ruled out due to the costs involved, such as waffle design and curved panels, could become just as cost effective as basic construction techniques with this FreeFAB Technology. It comes with other benefits, too.

"With 3D-printed architectural components we can incorporate aesthetic, structural, acoustic, thermal into a single design. It will bring meaningful change into the construction industry," Dr Gardiner said. "A process that would have taken days or weeks can be a two-hour process. And we recycle all our materials."

So in the hands of a construction giant like Laing O’Rourke, 3D printing can help shape the houses, cities and seas of the future. We’re looking forward to the official launch of the world’s biggest 3D printer, but you can see the fruits of its labor right now. Just go for a swim.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



Maybe you also like:


Leave a comment:

Your Name:


Subscribe us to Feeds twitter facebook   

About provides the latest news about 3D printing technology and 3D printers. We are now seven years old and have around 1.5 million unique visitors per month.

News Archive