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Concrete-based construction is among the most environmentally damaging activities undertaken in today’s global economy – and it has been historically very slow to adopt new materials and processes to improve.
Additive manufacturing – the application of 3D printing to create goods and infrastructure – could hold the key to unlock a much more efficient and environmentally sound use of concrete and other building materials to meet the world’s ever-increasing construction requirements.
Thinking Huts, a start-up non-profit organization based in Colorado, US, is at the forefront of innovation in 3D-printed concrete (3DPC) based construction. The development of their pilot project – a prototype 3D-printed school in Madagascar – should be taken note of by researchers and developers seeking materials and construction innovation.
Thinking Huts was founded in 2015 by Maggie Grout when she was only 15 years old. Grout, now a Business Management student at the University of Colorado, started the non-profit organization because she believes that technological solutions can drastically improve the lives of many around the world.
Thinking Huts focuses on access to education, which it has identified as a key driver of sustainable economic and social development. As well as its pilot project, the organization has also delivered education supplies to developing countries, and are working in partnership with experts to develop cloud-based and online education resources.
Thinking Huts has assessed insufficient infrastructure – not enough school buildings – as a key inhibitor to education access in the developing world. They are now seeking to apply advanced materials and construction processes to this problem through additive manufacturing.
Partners for a 3D-Printed School in Madagascar
Thinking Huts is developing its first 3D-printed school in Madagascar. The country was selected due to its political stability, positive economic outlook, and a local partner in SEED Madagascar – a UK-based NGO with extensive operational experience in Madagascar and, crucially, a shared understanding of the importance of education with Thinking Huts.
Hyperion Robotics – an additive manufacturing and 3D printing market leader based in Finland – is providing the technical expertise to ensure the pilot project achieves maximum success. Hyperion will design and supply a bespoke 3D printing robotic arm as well as design and development support.
Video Credit: Thinking Huts/YouTube.com
How can Additive Manufacturing be Used to Build a 3D-Printed School?
Hyperion’s architectural 3D printer will be installed in the center of the construction site. From here, it extrudes 3DPC in layers to build the main structure of the octagonal Thinking Hut prototype 3D-printed school. When the extrusion process is complete, the robotic arm can be disassembled and removed to allow the remaining construction to be completed.
Because 3DPC can be extruded into complex shapes without the use of molds, it is possible to minimize the use of concrete in construction with lattice structures and other designs that would be impossible with traditional mold-poured concrete.
Once the walls are complete, doors, windows and ceilings will be manufactured using locally sourced materials and more traditional methods.
The cost, speed and energy and resource efficiency of the pilot 3D-printed school will act as a proof of concept for Thinking Huts, which they will then seek to replicate around Madagascar and, in the future, in other developing countries.
Not only this, but it will also be keenly observed by the materials and construction industries in terms of its practicality, replicability, and the cost and resource savings it achieves.
Find out more: 3D Printers and 3D Printing Equipment, Materials and Accessories
Additive Manufacturing in Construction
3D printing entire buildings is a novel concept in the construction industry – which is typically conservative and can be slow to adopt new materials and technologies. The first 3D-printed building was completed in Nantes in 2017. It was a joint project by the University of Nantes and French construction giant, Bouygues. The building was completed in only three days, emitted 75% less carbon dioxide than a comparable traditional build, and used far less concrete and other materials.
The benefits of 3D printing in construction – many of which were first tested in the Nantes building and which will be tested in a developing country by Thinking Huts’ 3D-printed school – extend beyond the more efficient use of concrete and other materials, however.
Additive manufacturing construction is possible in an extremely short time period of days – as opposed to weeks and months. This is because, unlike a human workforce, an automated robotic concrete extruder can work around the clock without rest.
Automatic construction with 3D printing also means that designs can be reliably reproduced in sites around the world, even in inaccessible or potentially hazardous environments.
Challenges and Opportunities for 3DPC
3DPC has the potential to revolutionize the construction industry. However, research and testing are required before it can achieve this potential.
Focus on materials development is crucial. New concrete materials – as well as other construction materials such as polymers and metals – must be tested for their compatibility with 3D printing. Standardization of these materials is also currently lacking. Once this is tackled, architects and engineers will be free to design buildings that are structurally sound and safe, while using a minimum quantity of finite resources.
The additive manufacturing processes for applying 3DPC also still need to be developed. Industry standardization can then also be tackled, greatly speeding up 3D printing construction projects.
The 3D-printed school by Thinking Huts is an exciting step in these directions. This proof of concept will not only help to provide access to education for the estimated 780,000 primary school-aged children in Madagascar who cannot yet access education (60% of the school-aged population), but it will also provide important learning and proof of concept for additive manufacturing using 3DPC in remote or inaccessible parts of the world.
References and Further Reading
Bistodeau, Kathryn (2020) CU Boulder Student Plans to Use 3D Printing to Create Schools around the World. [Online] Boulder Daily Camera. Available at: https://www.dailycamera.com/2020/09/07/cu-student-plans-to-use-3d-printing-to-create-schools-around-the-world/ (Accessed on 28 September 2020).
Delgado Camacho, et al. (2018) Applications of Additive Manufacturing in the Construction Industry – A Forward-Looking Review. Automation in Construction. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.autcon.2017.12.031.
Ghaffar, Seyed Hamidreza, Jorge Corker, and Mizi Fan (2018) Additive Manufacturing Technology and Its Implementation in Construction as an Eco-Innovative Solution. Automation in Construction. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.autcon.2018.05.005.
Keating, Steven J., et al. (2017). Toward Site-Specific and Self-Sufficient Robotic Fabrication on Architectural Scales. Science Robotics. https://doi.org/10.1126/scirobotics.aam8986.
Labonnote, Nathalie, et al. (2016) Additive Construction: State-of-the-Art, Challenges and Opportunities. Automation in Construction. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.autcon.2016.08.026.
Paolini, Alexander, Stefan Kollmannsberger, and Ernst Rank (2019) Additive Manufacturing in Construction: A Review on Processes, Applications, and Digital Planning Methods. Additive Manufacturing. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addma.2019.100894.