Jul 23, 2017 | By Julia

If you live near London, you’ve probably heard of the Crossrail initiative. Already several years in the works, this massive expansion of the London underground is rapidly making history: as the first full underground line to be constructed in 3 decades, Crossrail (to be renamed the Elizabeth line) is Europe’s largest construction project. The 100km-plus rail line is set to pass through a grand total of 40 stations, stretching from Abbey Wood and Shenfield all the way to central London via 42 km of new tunnels.

Crossrail is also the first commercial building project to use 3D printing. It’s true: demo homes and offices have been 3D printed in Dubai and China; but for now, those structures remain purely conceptual. The issue, says Bill Baker, an engineer for the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is that printed concrete is produced layer by layer, and then fused together to create a thicker panel. But weakness develops between those layers, making the panels ultimately unsuitable for real buildings. “These things can peel apart,” Baker says.

Enter Bechtel Ltd, the construction company that’s leading the delivery of project Crossrail, and some of the first pioneers behind FreeFAB. As a system that uses specialised wax to print ultra-precise moulds for casting concrete, FreeFAB is filling the “gap” of 3D printed concrete, but not necessarily in the way you would expect.

By 3D printing highly precise wax molds rather than the concrete material itself, FreeFAB boasts several key advantages. One is structural integrity and strength: builders can achieve complex shapes that are both lightweight and incredibly strong, while bypassing the traditional issues of using 3D printed concrete in large buildings. Secondly, the Australian-invented mould technique creates far less waste. Regular moulds made from wood and polystyrene can only produce a single shape, after which they become useless. FreeFAB’s wax moulds, on the other hand, can be melted down, poured back into the tank, and re-extruded into an entirely new form. Finally, this 3D printed casting system means that it’s now cheaper than ever to produce complicated moulds with innovative shapes and ornate detailing.

All of those advantages are now coming into play with the construction of London’s massive new underground line. Made from Bechtel’s FreeFAB moulding system, hundreds of concrete panels are currently being installed in Crossrail’s passenger tunnels, which themselves cover over a hundred kilometres.

And with the finished rail line set to be fully operational by the end of 2019, it’s an ambitious project, but one that is sure to pay off. When finished, the Crossrail project is forecast to carry 200 million passengers a year, granting a 10% increase to downtown London’s rail capacity. While a hefty initial investment, the £15 billion ($19 billion) project is expected to add an estimated £42 billion to the UK’s economy.  If all goes according to plan, the Elizabeth line, as it will be called, will be zipping commuters across London in less than 45 minutes by December, 2019.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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