A 3D-printing arms race is pushing makers to build bigger and better with ever-more-resilient materials and increasingly precise extrusion techniques. That could change, however, as the mark of success in additive manufacturing shifts from size to scale and architects and designers take it upon themselves to hone the technology at the building-component and systems levels and bring their results to market. The trio of parts below shows how materials like concrete, plastic, and metal are being used to create 3D-printed components that, if applied at scale, could find their way to the jobsite in the not-so-distant future.
“Architecture has always been made of components—bricks and chunks and pieces and panels,” says Ronald Rael, CEO and co-founder of San Francisco studio Emerging Objects, a 3D-printing-focused offshoot of the design practice he runs with co-founder and chief creative officer Virginia San Fratello. Earlier this year the studio built Bloom, a 9-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide temporary pavilion comprising more than 800 3D-printed iron-oxide-free cement blocks attached using stainless steel hardware to form an undulating, structural enclosure. Bloom was displayed at the University of California, Berkeley, where reflecting light highlighted a floral design printed in its skin. “Bloom demonstrated that we can produce high-quality structural 3D-printed blocks with the process we’re using right now,” Rael says. “We need to think about how that moves into the market.”
Chattanooga, Tenn.–based architect Platt Boyd, AIA, and his startup Branch Technology are also going to market with a 3D-printed component: an open-matrix lattice made from carbon-fiber-reinforced ABS plastic that can serve as the core of a modular wall system that integrates common building materials like spray-foam insulation, spray-applied concrete, and cladding. “We’re using that matrix as a formwork or scaffold,” Boyd says. “The materials become the strength.” Initially designed for internal and nonstructural applications, the team is now working on a version of the lattice that can handle loads. “The true value of this is the geometry it enables,” he says. “It’s something that allows a flexibility of design that before was not even approachable except at a huge cost.”
Arup senior designer Salomé Galjaard is improving structural joints through 3D printing. The idea came following work on a tensegrity structure whose amorphous form required thousands of nodes that had to be individually drawn and hand-welded. By enlisting additive manufacturing, however, such a system could be readily fabricated as well as applied to a variety of future projects. “We thought, if we’re going to print a complex part, [we should] make it a little more complex so we can integrate functionalities of other parts of the system,” she says. The resulting stainless-steel node swaps a pin-and-fork connector and spanners for a series of integrated bolts to join and stabilize the components. Each node, in the latest iteration, is about 1/4-meter tall and weighs roughly 11 pounds. The next challenge, Galjaard says, is applying the 3D-printed joints to projects. “It does feel like you’re opening up to the world solutions that you weren’t able to use before,” she says, “and that’s very inspiring.”