Here’s the science behind 3D printing in construction

A mock-up of 3D printers building a bridge in Amsterdam. Image: MX3D.

It’s often claimed that 3D printing – known in the trade as “additive manufacturing” – will change the way we live. Most recently, a team from Eindhoven University of Technology announced plans to build the “world’s first” habitable 3D printed houses. But it’s one thing to build small, prototype homes in a park – it’s quite another to successfully use additive manufacturing for large scale projects in the construction sector.

Additive manufacturing uses a combination of materials science, architecture and design, computation and robotics. Yet in some ways, it’s not as futuristic as it sounds. The simple approach of layer-wise construction – where building materials are layered on top of each other to create a facade – has already been practised for a long time in the construction sector, for example in conventional brick layering techniques.

The true novelty of additive manufacturing lies in its ability to combine new, highly efficient and sustainable materials with architectural design software and robotic technology, to automate and improve processes that have already been proven manually. In this sense, additive manufacturing holds many potentially groundbreaking benefits for the construction sector.

3D printing can produce up to 30 per cent less material waste, use less energy and fewer resources, enable in-situ production (which in turn cuts transport costs), grant greater architectural freedom and generate fewer CO₂ emissions over the entire lifecycle of the product.

Printable feedstocks

But there is still some way to go before additive manufacturing technology can deliver on its potential. There are several different components of additive manufacturing, each of which must be developed and refined before the process can be successfully used in large-scale construction.


One component is printable feedstocks – the materials which are actually “printed” to create the final product. There are many types of printable feedstock, but the most relevant one for large scale construction is concrete. Printable feedstocks are typically made from a combination of bulk materials – such as soil, sand, crushed stone, clay and recycled materials – mixed with a binder such as Portland cement, fly ash or polymers, as well as other additives and chemical agents to allow the concrete to set faster and maintain its shape, so that the layers can be deposited rapidly.

In a project I am currently working on at Brunel University, we are focusing on producing a printable cement feedstock. To create materials for 3D printed constructions, scientists must carefully control the setting time of the paste, the stability of first few layers and the bonding between the layers. The behaviour of the materials must be thoroughly investigated under a range of conditions, to achieve a robust structure which can take load.

The combination of cement, sand and other additives must be just right, so that the feedstocks don’t set while still in the printer, and don’t stay wet for too long once they have been deposited to form a structure. Different grades of feedstock need to be formulated and developed, so that this technology can be used to build a range of different structural elements, such as load-bearing and large-scale building blocks.

Building blocks

Another component is the printer, which must have a powerful pump to suit the scale of manufacturing in the construction industry. The pressure and flow rate of the printer must be trialled with different types of feedstocks. The speed and the size of the printer is key to achieving a good print quality: smooth surface, square edges and a consistent width and height for each layer.

How quickly the feedstock materials are deposited – typically measured in centimetres per hour – can speed up or slow down construction. Decreasing the setting time of the feedstock means that the printer can work faster – but it also puts the feedstock at risk of hardening inside the printer system. The printing system should be optimised to continuously deliver the feedstock materials at a constant rate, so that the layers can fuse together evenly.

The geometry of the structures produced is the final piece of the puzzle, when it comes to using 3D printing in construction. When the printer and the feedstock have been properly set up, they will be able to produce full-size building blocks with a smart geometry which can take load without reinforcements. The shape stability of the truss-like filaments in these blocks is an essential part of printing, which provides strength and stiffness to the printed objects.

The ConversationThis three-pronged approach to adapting additive manufacturing for construction could revolutionise the industry within the next ten to 15 years. But before that can happen, scientists need to fine tune the mix ratios for the feedstocks, and refine a printing system which can cope with the rapid manufacturing of building blocks. Only then can the potential of 3D printing be harnessed to build faster, and more sustainably, than ever before.

Seyed Ghaffar, Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering and Environmental Materials, Brunel University London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.