“We have been constantly approached by people interested in what we were doing, some in fairly large organisations, but Skanska showed serious interest in the potential and took the approach of building a consortium of parties around the technology to develop a commercial version of our lab prototype.” -Dr. Richard Buswell
Global construction company Skanska has made a major move toward bringing 3D printing to the streets — literally. The company has signed an agreement with the UK’s Loughborough University to develop, build, and commercialize a 3D concrete printing robot. Loughborough University (LU), through its Innovative Manufacturing and Construction Research Centre (IMCRC) on the Freeform Project, has been working on lab-based 3D cement printing since 2007.
The collaboration agreement brings Skanska — which is working with a consortium of partners — into the picture, which can enhance the current lab-based work out of the lab and onto the streets. The existing IMCRC team is led by Dr. Richard Buswell and Professor Simon Austin, who are looking forward to the new partnership. They have seen interest from other companies in the construction field for about a half-decade now, but held off on partnering up without being presented with a well-thought-out plan that started with the technology and ended with the supply chain which would ultimately be necessitated. The IMCRC team has been working since 2007 on developing their 3D printing technologies for use with concrete; of course with that much investment in the project, they would want to wait for the best possible offer.
“Construction is still craft-based and conservative, while this requires digital modelling, digital control and robotics – it does things differently and requires the design of the components to be different,” said Dr. Buswell of the IMCRC. “So we don’t just need one partner, we need a whole bunch of skills, in materials and concrete batching, in robotics and component manufacturing.”
They’ve found that full package in Skanska and its consortium. Also working on the collaboration will be Buchan Concrete, ABB, Lafarge Tarmac, and Foster + Partners architect and design firm to complete the 3D printing supply chain for this specialized product. The team picture ranges from Buchanan, which can offer specialized knowledge of precast techniques, to ABB and their expertise in robotics and control systems, bringing together this amazing breadth of specialties and knowledge for quite an interesting plan.
The IMCRC’s Freeform Project utilizes a computer-controlled printer nozzle on a gantry and robotic arm to use layer-by-layer additive manufacturing technique to extrude concrete into designed shapes. Two prototypes have been produced from the second-generation Freeform printer. The bench and double-curved concrete cladding panel have held up to initial tests in the lab environment, and seem to show real promise for the project.
With the new collaboration in place, the IMCRC is optimistic; Dr. Buswell has suggested that within the next year-and-a-half or so a real world project might utilize 3D printed concrete components from the Freeform Project. He does indicate, however, that a full-scale 3D printing system for the concrete process would require a longer development period. As he puts it, “Cladding the next Gherkin is clearly some way down the line, but on smaller-scale exploratory stuff, like an architectural feature, we could run as fast as the industry wants to take it – perhaps a year. We’ll be exploring specific applications with the [Skanska] group – we’ve taken it as far as it can as an academic project, now we need that guidance from industry.”
Skanska, for its part, seems to be very optimistic about the technological growth possible using 3D printing. They see 3D concrete printing as a way to really shake up the construction industry, perhaps revolutionizing the entire process of building.
“3D concrete printing, when combined with a type of mobile prefabrication centre,” said Skanska’s Director of Innovation and Business Improvement Rob Francis, “has the potential to reduce the time needed to create complex elements of buildings from weeks to hours. We expect to achieve a level of quality and efficiency which has never been seen before in construction.”
Next week, on November 25 and 26, members of the new collaboration will be speaking at the 3D Printing & Additive Manufacturing Industrial Applications Global Summit in London. Dr. Buswell of the IMCRC and Skanska’s Head of Innovation, Sam Stacey, will represent their project at the conference.
What do you think? Will this team lead to successful commercial use of 3D cement printing? Let us know your thoughts at the Loughborough University and Skanska 3D Cement Printing forum thread at 3DPB.com. A video from the Freeform Project illustrates the thoughts behind 3D printing with concrete: