In 2004, the critically praised Liquid Stone exhibit was featured at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibition united architects, designers, producers, and artists who created examples of nontraditional uses of concrete. Exhibits included art objects made with self-consolidating concrete, masonry, and autoclaved aerated concrete.
If there was a new showcase of innovative concrete techniques in 2016, there’s one new technology that would certainly be the highlight of the show. 3D printing is a manufacturing process that builds layers to create a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model. And thanks to its acceptance and development in other industries, it’s rapidly garnering interest in concrete.
Ronald Rael, associate professor of architecture at the University of California-Berkeley, is one of the leaders in adopting this technology. Last year he constructed what he claims to be the first and largest powder-based 3D-printed cement structure. The debut of this groundbreaking project is a demonstration of the architectural potential of 3D printing.
His most recent creation is Bloom, a 9-foot-high, freestanding pavilion that spans about 12 feet by 12 feet. Bloom is a precise 3D-printed cement polymer structure that overcomes many of the previous limitations to 3D-printed architecture, including the speed and cost of production, aesthetics, and practical applications.
It is composed of 840 customized blocks that were 3D-printed using a new type of iron oxide-free portland cement polymer formulation developed by Rael.
Rael is one of a growing number of researchers who are bringing 3D concrete printing to near commercial viability. Researchers in this emerging technology have something in common. Most are mechanical engineers who come to concrete production via their interest in 3D printers and adept manufacturing. They bring knowledge and have a history of using thermo-plastics, epoxies, and ceramics. So using concrete-like materials is just an extension.
Another common element is their mission. 3D researchers view their work as an attempt to modernize the construction process. They believe that 3D printing units can be set up on jobsites. Their goal is to reduce labor and waste. For some, 3D printing offers a method to construct needed housing in developing countries.
But with the introduction of 3D printing, concrete construction no longer needs to fit into one box. Its growth will require a new look at traditional casting methods. These elements often require a mixture that has low slumps, but with tighter viscosity requirements.
How will manufacturing techniques using 3D printers and new materials merge into traditional construction? Only time will tell who will be early adopters and how these processes will be integrated into the building code.