Twente Additive Manufacturing: A Construction 3D Printer for Every Task

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The additive construction (AC) sector is currently bustling, though not every bit of activity necessarily means it’s thriving. Startups in the space are in the process of getting off the ground, meaning that some may fail to do so. Which new firms will succeed is yet to be determined, but one promising firm is based out of Canada and the Netherlands: Twente Additive Manufacturing (TAM).

TAM is an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that has developed a variety of 3D printer models targeting a broad set of applications. Rather than solely focus on 3D printed houses, as the most attention-grabbing startups tend to do, TAM’s concrete 3D printers range in size and design depending on the need, whether that’s tiny homes in Japan or culverts and footbridges tailored to local topography.

To learn more, we spoke to Ian Comishin, President of Twente Additive Manufacturing, who provided extensive insights into the evolving role of 3D printing in the construction industry, particularly focusing on how automation and innovative construction techniques could address current and future challenges.

Comishin has is in his third decade of working in industrial automation, a career that began with making sporting goods like skateboards using CNC machines in the 1990s. From there, he moved into wind energy, where he and his partners manufactured robotics used to build 45-75 meter, utility-grade blades for wind turbines. After selling the business in 2017, Comishin saw an opportunity to introduce automation to the construction sector.

“The more you dig into it, you see how the construction industry doesn’t seem to have the maturity of automation that you see in virtually every other industry on the planet. That’s why it seemed interesting for us. From our perspective, what’s exciting is being the first to develop a machine that does a certain task,” Comishin said.

With this strategy in mind, TAM began pursuing the development of a diverse set of AC machines. The range includes small to medium format printers with simple 3-axis Cartesian systems and more complex 6-axis robotic arms. These are ideal for research and small-scale production, with configurations allowing for up to 4x4x4 meter build volumes.

For more mobile and flexible needs, TAM provides printers integrated onto 6m flatbed trailers, featuring robotic arms and optional linear tracks for larger builds. At the largest scale, the firm’s offerings include massive 9-axis systems combining robots and Cartesian gantries, capable of creating structures up to 40x15x9 meters. This range meets the needs of controlled production environments and on-site builds, supporting continuous operation and the production of large, single elements.

“Take a look at a company like John Deere or Caterpillar, and you see how they don’t try to convince their customers that a one-size-fits-all works for their application case. If you were to imagine that your clients had to do everything with one type of machine, it’s not really understanding, you know, really the real potential that this product offers. So, when we started, we knew right away that we had to develop more than one type of machine for more than one application case. As the company evolves and we get more feedback from our clients, and our product line also evolves towards more task-specific printers. Imagine a person who only wants to print staircases, well, we can make a machine that’s most efficient machine for printing staircases. Then, the customer is not spending for unnecessary components that are irrelevant to the task. That’s the product mix we’re trying to offer our clients.”

Twente Additive Manufacturing has utilized its advanced 3D printing technologies to create a wide array of functional and architectural objects, demonstrating the versatility of its printers. Notable projects include the Fibonacci House, Canada’s first 3D printed home. Additionally, TAM’s printers have been employed to construct everything from rapidly deployable buildings and walls, with reduced thermal conductivity for improved energy efficiency, to infrastructure elements, such as culverts and footbridges. Demonstrating the flexibility of AC, the company and its partners have 3D printed staircases that are custom-designed to fit the specific topography of a site, featuring non-slip surfaces adapted to the terrain without the need for traditional formwork.

Because TAM was first established in the Netherlands, it maintains its headquarters there. However, COVID saw Comishin and his Canadian partners shore up in their home country, leading to the establishment of a Canadian division. As AC gains traction in North America, TAM is steadily increasing its activities in the region. As a result, Europe represents less than 10% of TAM’s global sales, while the Middle East is takes about 20%, and then the other 30 to 35 percent are split between North America and Asia, with Japan being TAM’s biggest individual country, in terms of clientele. In fact, you may have seen some of the homes printed with TAM’s technology by Serendix in Japan.

“Japan’s always had a strong relationship with robotics. It’s one of the countries that very cross quickly adopts automation across the board. So, it’s not a surprise to us that they’re buying robots from us,” Comishin said.

Relatedly, Comishin has a similar philosophy to Honda in terms of how automation affects the work force. Whereas the public impression of robotics is that the technology often displaces workers, Comishin and the automotive giant both suggest that it improves overall working conditions:

“One of the ways Honda deployed this concept is that every time you put a robot on the floor, you get to bring somebody from the floor up into the marketing or the engineering office. Here, North Americans tend to fear automation as a job killer, but most of us who work in the automation industry will tell you that virtually everybody who contacts us to design some kind of machine is not doing so because they’re trying to kill a job for an employee. It’s because they’re having a hard time finding an employee to do that job in the first place. Or the job that they’ve been asking people to do has been dangerous or hazardous, and they would prefer to have a machine in there so that the health and wellbeing of the individual worker is no longer at risk.”

As in manufacturing in North America, the construction industry faces a dwindling pool of skilled laborers as the baby boomer generation retires. Unlike quick skills that can be rapidly taught and adopted, mastery in traditional construction trades often requires long-term coaching and apprenticeships — resources that are becoming scarce. Automation, therefore, is not just a technological advancement but may be a necessary evolution to preserve and propagate essential construction skills without the extensive time investment traditionally required.

Fortunately, TAM, and other firms like it, may be able to get a boost from a powerful source: the national government. While the Biden-Harris Administration in the U.S. is pushing funds into technological solutions to aging infrastructure, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a CAD$600 million package to strengthen homebuilding in the country, with CAD$50 million dedicated to automated construction, including 3D printing. If the Canadian government is able to accelerate the growth of AC domestically, there’s no reason not to expect other nations to do the same.

Images courtesy of Twente AM.

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