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3D Printing and Its Effect on Architecture

The promise of 3D printing has excited forward-thinking architects, structural engineers and designers for years. But whether you are interested in printing important components for structures or finishing structures in their entirety, 2018 may be the year that 3D printing finally comes into its own.

At its most advanced level, this incredible technology employs computer-controlled cranes and large-scale robotic equipment in place of the smaller, consumer-grade 3D printers that you may have seen or even used to produce models, sculptures, mechanical parts and toys.

Although these printers typically used materials such as plastics, epoxy resins, or nylon polymers, certain specialized fabricators and state-of-the-art industries have developed 3D applications that use everything from gold and silver to ceramic, gypsum and stainless steel.

Those at the vanguard of the building construction industry have been using 3D printing since the technology’s very earliest days of in the mid-1980s. Architects and designers were among the first to realize the potential of 3D printing, creating detailed scale models of proposed buildings.

By 1990s, the industry began experimenting with 3D printing in the production of modular components for full-scale projects, and by the 2000s, these construction methods had gained widespread acceptance and were poised to transform the entire industry.

The race to create the very first entirely printed, practical, life-sized building began in earnest in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Key milestones in this technological journey include the development of the University of Southern California’s Contour Crafting System — an enormous 3D-printing crane that used concrete as a medium to lay down key structural elements.

Other pioneers on the road to fully-realized, 3D-printed structures include the Netherlands’ Plastic Canal House (a multi-story housing project by the Amsterdam architectural firm DUS Architect that has been in the planning stages for more than three years) and England’s ProtoHouse (a fibrous single-story dwelling concept by the London design studio Softkill Design that would be printed in sections at a factory facility and then snapped together on site).

In spring of 2017, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a robotic system that successfully completed the basic framework of a 3D printed building in less than 14 hours. A dome-like structure, the MIT creation measures 50 feet in diameter and 12 feet in height.

In addition to using a concrete-like, heavy-duty material for its skeletal foundation, the MIT system can excrete other building materials that range from welding solder to foam. It employs a large industrial robotic arm for maximum reach and a smaller arm for maximum dexterity. Steven Keating, PhD graduate in mechanical engineering from the MIT Media Lab and renowned expert on 3D printing, believes that this technological system and others like it are ready to for full-scale implementation. In a paper published in the scholarly journal Science Robotics, he contends, "With this process, we can replace one of the key parts of making a building, right now. It could be integrated into a building site tomorrow."

The advantages of incorporating 3D printing into the construction process are both numerous and remarkable. Promising considerable simplification in terms of both materials and equipment, 3D printing can reduce the overall cost of projects and the time that it takes to complete them. It can also minimize negative environmental impact and decrease construction site injuries. 

But it doesn't stop at large structures. 3D printing is making its way into homes and businesses by way of furniture, decor, wall applications, and much more. 

Collaboration between Caesarstone and the forward-thinking academic institution Pratt Institute produced the Future Kitchen, where students of architecture and design explored the possible use of 3D printing alongside other advanced concepts such as aquaponics and indoor farming to imagine the kitchen of 2050.

 Photo: Allie Jarrett

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