Arizona State University (ASU)’s civil engineering Professor Narayanan Neithalath and four colleagues at other universities have been awarded a $2 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s AccelNet program, in order to foster collaboration around concrete 3D printing research across more than thirteen countries. The initiative will also accelerate progress in concrete additive manufacturing (AM) and help address challenges in science and engineering.
The investigators on the grant are creating a concrete 3D printing network called 3DConcrete. This “network of networks” will foster global interconnections and international consensus on 3D printed concrete best practices, materials, design standardization, and engage researchers in an “innovation ecosystem” to facilitate technology transfer. In fact, Neithalath said that, since every country or region has its own professional network when it comes to concrete, his team will attempt to establish a broader collaboration focusing on the research and development of 3D printed concrete and allied topics to help advance the capabilities of the industry.
“3D printing has several advantages over conventional concrete construction,” said Neithalath. “For example, the method is much more efficient. We can reduce material wastage by half, and we also can create unconventional structures. But realizing the advantages requires a community to research and develop the tools, techniques and standards to make this innovation into a more broad-based reality.”
Concrete is the single most widely used material in the world. Humans have been using concrete for thousands of years. Materials scientists have even found that basic ingredients in cement were being mixed as far back as ancient Egyptian times, into what could have been a geopolymer concrete. Then, the Romans perfected concrete, creating some of the largest structures in history that are still standing 2,000 years later. Yet since the discovery of Portland cement and modern concrete in the early nineteenth century, not much has changed.
Concrete constructors have been striving to modernize the industry, and it appears that new trends in concrete technology are expected to help reduce construction costs and improve efficiency both on and off construction sites. 3D printing concrete, in particular, has the potential to significantly enhance the speed, safety, efficiency, performance, and sustainability of concrete construction to meet the world’s future construction challenges, like labor shortage, quality control, and reducing human error. Recent advances in materials science, robotics, and other fields are permitting concrete to be 3D printed at building sites, with projects in the Americas, Europe, and Asia already printing entire houses and potentially residential buildings.
Neithalath’s research to improve the design and development of sustainable infrastructure and construction materials has earned him international attention in the field. Considered a rising star in the emerging areas of new and novel civil engineering materials, Neithalath has been focused on methods for producing more durable cement and concrete, as well as the environmental impacts of their production and use over their life spans.
Working with civil engineering colleagues Jan Olek, Professor at Purdue University; Raissa Ferron, Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Gaurav Sant, Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Shiho Kawashima, Associate Professor at Columbia University, Neithalath will now focus on providing a mechanism for sharing knowledge, networking, and educating the next generation of professionals. The 3DConcrete project will span six continents and 13 countries, with mentorship activities that also connect colleagues in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, and the Americas.
The broad collaborations will also provide valuable opportunities to students and early-career researchers to further their knowledge and to become leaders in this emerging field. In addition to faculty peer relations, 3DConcrete will support networking events, workshops, webinars, and student exchange programs to develop and nurture a new generation of diverse and globally competitive researchers and workforce in 3D printed concrete.
More direct interaction efforts will engage more academics with peer work, something that Kawashima considered necessary in a field where academics are not necessarily collaborating. The expert explained that although “we are cement and concrete materials people,” they need to reach out to professionals in other fields, like architecture, robotics, and structural engineering, to increase research initiatives.
Similarly, Ferron indicated that the cross-disciplinary nature of 3D concrete printing demands not only professional collaboration but also a review of educational models. Mainly because students will need more training and skills, such as in robotics and programming, to change the nature of the field going forward. Broader changes represented by 3D concrete printing offer a means to bring more women and minorities into construction, said Ferron.
“Construction is one of the largest sectors in the economy, but certain groups of people have been barred from full participation. 3D concrete printing presents an opportunity to reinvent the field. For example, if this innovation means workers will not necessarily need to pick up heavy equipment, we can disassociate construction from being a masculine arena,” Ferron described.
In line with this, Neithalath concurred that fundamental change to the science and practice of construction is long overdue and that this requires new thinking on fundamental levels: “Not all conventional methods are the best of what is possible, so this project is intended to create a shared platform that can germinate new ideas to take us toward what is possible.”
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