Printing Fortifications, Buildings and Bridges

Concrete 3D Printing

3D printing has been in the news a lot recently and is an area of technology that is advancing at a frightening pace. Only a few months ago people were amazed at the ability to print simple plastic shapes but things have moved on rapidly.

Defence, especially ‘defense’, never seems far away from the latest technology. The US DoD have only just announced a $30 million study to look at defence applications for example.

Most of the real benefits will probably be realised in manufacturing rather than in theatre but a couple of proposed applications do look rather interesting.

The first is for printing buildings, no, honestly!

The terminology often used is ‘contour crafting’ and this describes a system to treat buildings the same as manufactured parts today. That is integrated design and production using computers and machines rather than design and artisan craftsman.

It is not completely ‘printed’ but uses 3D printing for some aspects of the build.

The video below is a TED Talk from Behrokh Khoshnevis, from the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at the University of Southern California, supported by Caterpillar Inc

Apart from the non-defence benefits to the wider community the possibilities for building expeditionary infrastructure are fascinating. Instead of shipping materials and having lots of tradesmen that all need paying, feeding and otherwise supporting a couple of these machines, supervised by trained personnel and perhaps using local contractors to support other aspects such as ground preparation, utilities and final finishing has the potential for significant reductions in cost, fuel, time, airframe hours and delays etc.

In the video, Behrokh describes how utility pipes and cables can be incorporated into the build process and the clip on the extruded reinforced wall is equally impressive.

Something like this might not replace the Hesco or Defencell systems we use today for expedient field fortification but could for the follow on the phase where more permanent and less obvious defence related construction is needed.

Click here for more videos and here for a white paper.

It is not just the US that is looking at automated building construction techniques using additives and 3D printing, Loughborough University, for example, is researching the techniques used for component production using concrete additives, click here to read more.

The second and equally interesting application is called ‘Stone Spray’

Stone Spray is a related technology but instead of using concrete, it uses sand and soil combined with additives, layered by a 3D printing technique.

One of the key standouts of Stone Spray is that it is not limited to producing forms in horizontal layers, the resultant structure can therefore be much more intricate.

Read more at the Stone Spray website, click here

A sprayed bridge will not be replacing BR90 or the MGB any time soon but for projects and missions where time is less of an issue again, the potential benefits are significant.

Both techniques are clearly at the early stages but I think they are beyond interesting and have a whiff of revolution about them.

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23 Responses

  1. There is a chap in the US printing AR15 receivers on a “last gen” printer. I am impressed with how far this has all happened in such a short time frame. As somebody who grew up with the promise of the universal machine 3D printing takes it beyond even that heady concept.

    “Tea, Earl Grey, hot..”

  2. x – nice quote matey – classic :-)

    If you think about it, serious power lasers are being tested and fielded, and the yanks have their experimental rail gun, and BAe have their “cloaking device” – so how long before the standard response to air raid warning red becomes “shields up!”

  3. Great stuff, nice to see people in niches outside of the 3D printing crowd getting excited by what 3D printing could do for them!

    Although this is a prototype that wasn’t as effective as it could have been due to materials, here is the world’s first ever working 3D printed boat! Thought it may be of particular interest!

  4. @TD I can’t believe you missed this – REF are doing 3D printing in a container!!!!

    [waits for the boss to calm down….]

    Not sure about “Only a few months ago people were amazed at the ability to print simple plastic shapes” though – 3D printing has been around for what, 10-15 years now? (and you can trace its roots to rapid prototyping machines back in the early 1980s). What’s “new” is it becoming affordable with the likes of and

  5. I got very excited by 3D printing when it first came out – right up until I realised it was actually nothing like the “replicator” technology from Star Trek.

    Having gotten over that initial disappointment, yes I am interested again. Could this see the re-emergence of cottage industry?

  6. One of the big potential uses of 3D printing is for things that need to be customised to fit people – there’s a lot of fun medical uses like implanting cells into printed “scaffolding” to grow new bones etc. This is a very early example of printing an exoskeleton that makes the user stronger, and which can be upgraded as they get bigger :

    It’s obviously early days, but there’s interesting synergies with the work that’s going on with military cyborg suits (see eg for an overview)

  7. The video of that 3D “printing” of the defensive wall reminded me of watching my mother piping icing onto a cake. Was that 3-D printing? In which case I’m patenting her recipe and selling it for defence use. That icing would defeat a DU round.

  8. “right up until I realised it was actually nothing like the “replicator” technology from Star Trek.”

    That will never become possible, the cost in energy for one cup of tea would greater than building a few spaceships, even in the 25th century.

  9. From El Sid’s first link: ” These labs don’t just fill a battlefield role, they can also be deployed to solve problems on the ground during natural disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in Japan. Newell says the REF plans to use these labs well past 2014, when soldiers leave Afghanistan.”

  10. RT: you can buy a machine that accepts input from a computer and squirts icing onto a cake. It’s very similar in principle. There’s a great photo about on the web of a cake with an error message iced onto the top…

  11. I wonder if you could print a ship out of cement bonded wood fibre.

    Firstly the materials are cheap and lend themselves to the process of rapid (days) construction in the field..
    Secondly composites can be surprisingly strong: for a left-field example, see: (although leaving out the ice would be good for the South China Sea).
    Thirdly, easy to repair.

    The obvious use could be a floating harbour. A vessel would be astoundingly slow and massive, but do for a logistics staging barge. A true behemoth, semi-submerged and the size of an island could be pretty hard to sink. New aircraft carrier anyone? There, did it!

  12. Ant said “I wonder if you could print a ship out of cement bonded wood fibre.”

    No. But consider pouring a rough form then use robots to carve out the hull’s form.

  13. Hmm, ballistic polymer?…

    “Private, run over to the replicater and print us more 5.56 and a few more 7.62!”

  14. Ant, printing the guns is easy, hell, my little sis does 3D printing for her building models, making common moldable plastic polymer that can combust and propel a round is a very serious advance, and would modernise logistics worldwide. No more shipping of x of one calibre or y of another, just a printer and a huge vat of ballistic polymer.

    The breakthrough is not the gun, the breakthrough is the common ammo.

  15. @Observer
    Lordy you’re hard to please!
    Yes the rest may come, and I look forward to hearing of your little sister printing her own heavy artillery shortly thereafter :)

  16. Ant, she doesn’t print heavy artillery, she IS the heavy artillery. Brings the house down every time she fires one in anger. :)

    I blame the consumption of too much candy when young.

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