Hybrid Concrete Printing

The next generation in 3D concrete printing.

Last updated: 10th December 2021

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Innovation Lead: Professor Richard Buswell
Project number: 31405
UKRI funding: £1,222,952

Website:
lboro.ac.uk/enterprise/3dcp/


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Summary

The design of buildings has been freed up by architects adopting computer modelling technologies. These designs are now constrained, not by what can be imagined, but by traditional methods of construction, such as casting concrete. Hybrid Concrete Printing can manufacture high precision surfaces, interfaces and features, with a much shorter lead-time than traditional methods - realising the potential of 3D Concrete Printing to deliver cost, waste, safety and time benefits for the construction industry.

Innovation type: Digital, Manufacturing
Organisation type: Research centre

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Project pioneers

Professor Richard Buswell, Professor of Building Systems Engineering at Loughborough University’s School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering, is recognised internationally as a pioneer in 3D concrete printing.

The problem

The design of buildings and the built environment, both in terms of appearance and performance, has been freed up by architects adopting highly sophisticated computer modelling technologies. These designs are now constrained - not by what can be imagined, but by traditional methods of construction, such as pouring concrete into a formwork (or temporary mould). 3D Concrete Printing (3DCP) has established itself worldwide as a viable manufacturing process, but its potential is fundamentally limited by the precision to which elements can be manufactured. Until 3DCP can consistently deliver the manufacturing tolerances needed for complex components, the benefits it can bring to the construction industry in terms of cost, waste, safety and time will go unrealised.

Vision

Hybrid Concrete Printing (HCP) allows the construction industry to adopt 3DCP to manufacture high precision surfaces, interfaces and features. As a digitally-driven offsite technology, it will enable repeatable, high-quality components to be manufactured with a much shorter lead-time than traditional methods. This reduces the time, labour and waste associated with concrete moulds. It frees up the design possibilities of components that use less material and have less embedded carbon, while designing out potentially problematic interfaces and reducing assembly time. The ability to go from design to product in hours rather than weeks means that elements can be created ‘just in time’, taking final alterations or pre-­existing onsite constraints into account. This increases build quality and reduces the need for adjustments or rework. Ultimately HCP unlocks the potential for accurate interfaces and assemblies, opening the gateway for a revolution in the design and manufacture of buildings and the wider built environment.

Key Insight

Professor Buswell wanted to build on the foundations of 3D Concrete Printing (3DCP) technology, established at Loughborough University between 2006 and 2011. The idea for Hybrid Concrete Printing was to use 3DCP to create an object slightly larger than the desired object (a near-net-shape) and then apply precision cutting, milling and drilling (subtractive processes) to remove small amounts of material, producing the desired object (net-shape) to sub-millimetre precision.

First step

Loughborough University’s School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering, alongside other partners, formed a multi-disciplinary group that connects digital design and manufacture, metrology and material science. The aim was to take a national and international lead in developing HCP as the next generation of 3DCP for construction manufacturing. 

Barrier

Creating components using a traditional concrete moulding process can take weeks; is manual and difficult work, which is costly and hard to find labour for; and creates waste in the construction of the mould. It also limits the design possibilities of components to produce better onsite assembly, quality and sustainability outcomes.  

Process innovation

HCP Is a high-speed, net-shaping process. By applying subtractive methods to a near-net-shape produced by 3DCP you can manufacture elements to sub-millimetre precision. To ensure the manufacturing tolerances needed for complex components, the University worked on getting the positional accuracy of two large ABB robots from 6-14mm to 1mm. As part of the process, a two-part continuous mixing and hopper system holds 1500kg of material, making 2 tonnes of concrete. This can be set in 15 seconds. Going straight from a digital model to printing and setting removes the need for trial and error that could take months. Now projects can be more reliably scheduled, components can be delivered on 'just in time' basis, allowing any final changes or alterations to be taken into account. This increases build quality and reduces the need for adjustments or rework. Automating these tasks saves manual, heavy, and difficult work which is costly and hard to find labour for.

Collaborators

The project collaborators are a multi-­disciplinary group that connect digital design and manufacture, metrology and material science, with the aim of taking a national and international lead in developing HCP as the next generation of 3DCP for construction manufacturing. 

  • Materials -­ Synthomer: One of the world’s foremost suppliers of aqueous polymers. Concrete admixtures for 3DCP applications is a growing market and one where all leading manufacturers are keen to establish new product offerings.
  • Automation -­ Autodesk: This proposal has been informed through the ongoing relationship between its Coventry office where the Powermill software expertise resides and the University. This project builds on Autodesk's experience in the emerging domain of large scale hybrid manufacture using metals.
  • Design -­ Foster + Partners: One of the largest architecture practices in the world which has collaborated with the University on 3DCP for the last 12 years. Its Specialist Modelling Group works with complex geometries, manufacturing methods, automation and multi-­disciplinary design solutions
  • Design - Cundall: A multi-­disciplinary engineering and sustainability practice keen to use design know-­how to drive the adoption of new technologies. Cundall leads the identification of problems and design solutions to direct the research.
  • End-­User -­ Urba-­style: A forward-thinking SME, manufacturing precast concrete elements. A strong relationship has been developed with Urba-style over the last three years. It was the first customer of the 3DCP technology and will host a University-led start-up called ‘Concrenetics', based on the technology developed by this project. This initiative will allow to assess and optimise production using HCP.
  • Autodesk
  • Cundall
  • Foster + Partners
  • Synthomer
  • University of Loughborough
  • Urba-­style

Lead support

Transforming Construction Challenge connected the projects to conference, event and networking opportunities.

Long Term Vision

HCP unlocks the potential for accurate interfaces and assemblies, opening the gateway for a revolution in the design and manufacture of buildings and the wider built environment. Combined with seamless digital workflows and accurate process simulations, HCP will allow elements to be created ‘just in time’, taking final alterations or pre-­existing onsite constraints into account - increasing build quality and reducing adjustments or rework.

Human Stories

HCP technology opens up the possibility of more bespoke components where building performance, energy production and energy storage technologies can be integrated into buildings without compromising form and finish - creating an aesthetically pleasing and sustainable built environment for us all.

Powerful Processes

HCP uses a process where 3DCP creates an object slightly larger than the desired object (a near-net-shape). It then applies precision cutting, milling and drilling (subtractive processes) to remove small amounts of material, producing the desired object (net-shape) to sub-millimetre precision.

Fascinating Facts

Concrete is an extremely commonly used material in the civil construction sector - second only to water. Its extensive use is responsible for 8% of the CO2 being generated globally. More efficient design, realised through HCP, will contribute to a reduction in the materials consumed for concrete. A piece of street furniture created using HCP uses 60% to 70% less material than one created with conventional casting methods. The precast concrete market in the UK alone is worth over £2bn a year, about 20% of this is products that could be manufactured with HCP.

Benefits

Cost
HCP can reduce the cost of the redesign and adaption of spaces in buildings to maintain their value for longer. The design process means that existing spaces can be surveyed digitally, so that components can be manufactured specifically for them, allowing easier assembly and potentially removal.

Emissions
More efficient design, realised through HCP, will contribute to a reduction in the materials consumed for concrete. For example, a piece of street furniture created using HCP uses 60% to 70% less material than one created with conventional casting methods.

Productivity
By realising greater precision in manufacture than is currently possible, HCP provides a digitally-driven offsite technology for repeatable, high-quality components to be manufactured in a considerably shorter lead-time. This precision will enable more accurate components to be manufactured. The geometry of components can also be adjusted to suit pre-existing constraints onsite, resulting in better quality build, easier assembly and a reduction in time lost for adjustments and rework.

Time
HCP has the potential to reduce the procurement time of components from several weeks to a few hours, with no waste from used moulds. Parts can be manufactured just-­in-­time, which with computational based scheduling reduces the need for storage and the chances of damage. This also removes the uncertainty of the human operations in the current supply chain, resulting in reduced time on site, shorter projects, and reduce costs.

Trade Gap
The precast concrete market in the UK alone is worth over £2bn a year, about 20% of this is products that could be manufactured with HCP.