Printing Concrete

3D printing concrete (or contour crafting) is a favourite subject here at TD Towers and I have written about it a few time (here, here and here)

As always, progress keeps happening.

3D printed concrete
3D printed concrete

Skanska and Loughborough University have teamed up with Norman Foster and Partners to bring 3D concrete printing to practical fruition.

The printer deposits a high–performance concrete precisely under computer control. It works by laying down successive layers of concrete until the entire object is created. The printer can make things which cannot be manufactured by conventional processes such as complex structural components, curved cladding panels and architectural features.

The aim of the initial 18-month development programme is to develop the world’s first commercial concrete printing robot. Working with Skanska are a number of influential collaborators including Foster + Partners, Buchan Concrete, ABB and Lafarge Tarmac. As a result of this programme, Skanska aims to explore opportunities opened up by the new technology and help develop a 3D printing supply chain.

Although none of these partners are talking about using 3D concrete printing for military applications the benefits would be many. Their main objective is to use the technology to create shapes that cannot be created by normal processes but in an expeditionary context, the main objectives would be speed and resource economy, including personnel

Some of the proposed applications are literally out of this world.

Could astronauts one day be printing rather than building a base on the Moon? In 2013 ESA, working with industrial partners, proved that 3D printing using lunar material was feasible in principle. Since then, work continues to investigate the technique. The shielding against radiation provided by a 3D-printed block of simulated lunar regolith was measured, providing important inputs for next-stage designs… Soon the Agency is due to investigate another lunar 3D printing method, harnessing concentrated sunlight to melt regolith rather than using a binding liquid.

But how might lunar 3D printing one day be used in practice? Foster+Partners, contributing architectural concepts for the original study, put together this outline of a hypothetical mission to 3D-print an entire a lunar base, illustrating the design factors that steered them in their work. The rim of Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole was chosen for the base location. The Moon’s rotation is such that the Sun only grazes its poles at low angles. The result is a near-constant ‘peak of eternal light’ along the rim of Shackleton Crater, beside regions of permanent shadow. Building in the vicinity of such a site would offer plentiful solar power, and relief from the extremes of heat and cold found across the rest of the Moon.

In reality any lunar base remains firmly on the drawing board, but each small step forward in research makes future lunar colonisation a little more feasible. In October 2014 more than 350 experts came together for a two-day Additive Manufacturing for Space Applications workshop at ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. They discussed the potential of 3D printing – also known as Additive Manufacturing – to transform the way the space industry operates and begin preparing common standards for its use.

The European Space Agency has also been working with Norman Foster and Partners, and in this case, an Italian company called D-Shape

Read more here



Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Engineer Tom
Engineer Tom
December 9, 2014 11:45 am

Surely concrete isn’t an option in an expeditionary context, you need a large supply of the right sand and water, plus how hard is it if you have the guys there mixing the concrete to just have them pour it as well, you might not get fancy shapes but at least you don’t have anymore kit to transport.

This might be useful if you are building a permanent base that needs bunkers designed to dissapate blasts etc but then we would probably be able to hire the kit for a one off.

December 9, 2014 2:31 pm

This a very interesting development in manufacturing technology. I could see a use for it in ship building industry which tried concrete many times before ,since the 1850’s, but has all ways come up against various problems ,corrosion of the reinforcing steel being one,this technique seems to eliminate that from the equation so perhaps there is hope in that direction. Weight is another which may be able to be reduced by using a more complex shapes which were previously unachievable with simple formers.In these days of ‘total life cycle’ thinking maybe it would be a cheaper, more environmental solution. A engineer, as the Foster vids try to promote, is only limited by their imagination AND the materials they have to work with.

@TD It is D-Shape :-)

December 9, 2014 9:58 pm

Military application, nil. Sheer awesomeness factor combined with British innovation – oh yes, in spades!

December 10, 2014 2:42 pm

‘Military application, nil.’

I’d say it has a bit more potential than nil. For constructing something like Bastion this would be quite handy and save on a lot of material and logistics, compare shipping in timber for formwork as a start. Hesco consumes large amounts of fill that we either locally quarry or import so it should save in that respect as well.

Then there is the energy benefits of building accommodation constructed from concrete panels insulated with expanding foam during the construction phase rather than trying to cool and heat tent’s and corrimex that have minimal insulation.

I think it warrants a look, at least.

Deja Vu
Deja Vu
December 10, 2014 2:55 pm

@TAS Agree.

Note the design input is from an architect not a structural engineer.

I would have doubts about using such an element as structure – the aim is to produce accurately a large number of elements all of which differ in shape, such as for external cladding.

Additive manufacture using metals on the other hand could have benefits. Arup – who are engineers – are doing work on using 3D printing of steels to produce connections using maraging steels, the same as formed the knuckle joint on the old AVLB. Maraging steel components are heat treated after manufacture to gain their superior strength properties. I could see this used for critical components on a warship. Would not have to wait tied up on some exotic coast waiting for a replacement shaft or bearing to arrive from UK by airmail, just make one up as required.

I doubt we will have an expeditionary force at the end of as long a logistic tail as Op Herrick in the near future but the same would apply to automotive spares – could radically reduce the holdings in theatre whilst enabling effective equipment support on the bewilderingly large number of vehicle types.

December 11, 2014 10:51 am

‘I would have doubts about using such an element as structure’

I can’t really see a reason why synthetic fiber reinforced concrete (should still be pump-able) could not be used to make structural panels. Obviously bridges etc are out of the question for the foreseeable future but a basic ‘nissen hut’ type structure should be quite straight forward to manufacture.

December 11, 2014 6:24 pm

Fibre reinforced cement is in common usage already using every thing from plastic to glass to steel to natural fibres depending on the application. The best method to obtain the strongest finished material is to spray the cement and intermix this with the fibres at the spray head into a mould , tunnel roof or where ever. Attaching the spray head to a 3D printer robot is no great leap forward but this is :-
The GE and CFM joint high efficiency engine LEAP has flown using numerous critical metal parts like fuel nozzles and fan blades.

Deja Vu
Deja Vu
December 12, 2014 2:27 pm

DN & M

Don’t get me wrong there is a use for the technique but it is closer to sculpture than structure.

The Loughborough system, as most of them, has no coarse aggregate this means a lot of cement, The 3D technique can produce complex forms with voids as shown in the video and photos so the weight and materials can be reduced compared with a solid section.

The difficulty with structural pre-cast concrete is connecting it together. The problem would be the same with 3D printed components. Inserts would be required and/or insitu splices. Historic experience was that these latter is prone to be poorly executed.

Fibre reinforced concrete is not as far as I am aware used in beams and columns yet but I could see reinforcement fed from a coil straightener being placed within the printed concrete so I doubt that would be a problem.

Clearly there may be niche uses where the accuracy and ability to vary the shape between each unit could be used.

For example the making of hollow ISTAR rocks that could be printed in 3D from stereoscopic photographs of an existing rock and replaced surreptitiously by a passing patrol. But that would be pretty niche. Wasn’t that how they located the South Antrim snipers?

I expect the architects envisage flowing “Organic” structures for example, but such structures generally lead to an inefficient use of space. For normal orthogonal structures where load has to be carried down to foundations, I doubt it.

December 13, 2014 7:08 am

‘Attaching the spray head to a 3D printer robot is no great leap forward’

It’s just a step change in use and application, but still has it’s uses. A simple advancement in techniques and application can be just as revolutionary as a leap forward in technology sometimes. I fully agree with the your link and the ability to print parts etc in theter would be a huge help to logistics in terms of speed and lost parts to double ordering etc. Combine both methods for parts and building and your expeditionary capability in both terms of military and aid missions would be both large and sustainable.


‘Fibre reinforced concrete is not as far as I am aware used in beams and columns yet’

I understand some of the limitations in it’s use when it comes to large spans and load bearing in this sense, which is why I think if it was limited to producing ‘nissen hut’ type structures (which would be self supporting using segmented archways) then it would be viable. A building such as this would still have a use in about 80-90% of accommodation scenarios, and possibly the method used to replace Rub shelters for aircraft protection etc.