Concentrating concrete – hybrid manufacturing for large-scale construction

Intended as an event funded by Denmark to enlighten Denmark, 3D Printhuset‘s 3D Construction Printing conferences attracted visitors on an international scale, and in doing so now has an uncertain future. The second edition, held in Copenhagen in November, welcomed an audience of more than 240 people – 50% of which were foreign – to revel in the knowledge of industry experts and the spectacle of 3D Printhuset’s 3D printed office hotel, The BOD (Building On-Demand).

This 50-square-meter building was constructed with the company’s 8 x 8 x 6 metre gantry printer and supplemented a full programme of speakers as the conference went from strength to strength. But now, the Danish Government has taken a step back, and 3D Printhuset is without financial support to organise any follow-up events.

Though the future of the 3D construction printing sector’s only dedicated conference is in doubt, the future of the market itself isn’t, at least not for want of trying. Numerous examples of 3D printed construction structures, like cycle bridges and bus shelters, are being put forward as suitable applications, and there are even EU-backed projects looking to deliver new manufacturing tools.

XtreeE, one of the companies represented in Copenhagen last November, is part of a consortium of 12 companies in the middle of a 36-month project aiming to develop a hybrid manufacturing system for large-scale building processes. HINDCON (Hybrid INDustrial CONstruction) is funded by the European Commission under the H2020 Program and was launched in September 2016. The 5 million EUR project brings together VIAS, the project leader; LafargeHolcim; Siemens Program and System Engineering SRL; Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA); FUNDACIOcim; ESTIA; University of Patras’ Laboratory for Manufacturing Systems & Automation; SINTEF; Institution of Construction Sciences; ATANGA; XtreeE; and LCA Consultants APS. Between them, they will pool their resources and expertise into nine key areas which include, but are not limited to, Additive Material Development; Printing and Robotics Technologies; Manufacturing and Construction Processes; and Demonstration of the All-in-One Machine.

The Manufacturing and Construction Processes sector is mainly the responsibility of XtreeE, and will see it design a footbridge which adequately demonstrates the potential of the hybrid additive and subtractive manufacturing technology. At the forefront of XtreeE’s approach is the buildability, accounted for through ‘proper material modelling’ and the optimisation of time, cost, and material and energy consumption. It hopes this effort can contribute to an impactful solution for the construction sector.

“Hopefully, the success of HINDCON will convince the construction industry of the pertinence of hybrid 3D concrete printing technology for added-value in specific applications,” Justin Dirrenberger, from XtreeE’s R&D department, told TCT. “If used wisely, the results of HINDCON, regarding manufacturing technology and methodology, could generate significant revenue for the early-adopters within the industry.”

XtreeE’s design of a demonstrative application is wholly reliant on the development of additive-compatible materials, printing and robotic technologies, and control software since the project wants to instil a process-based design strategy. As well as pioneering a new construction technique, HINDCON wants to move away from the process by which buildability is only considered after a structure is designed. Its website reads ‘the design of complex, lightweight and optimal structural elements will fully pay attention to the specificities of AM.’ Those specificities include materials, process, and software.

Additive material development will be overseen by LafargeHolcim, and comply with the quality standards and robustness required and expected in the construction sector. They will need to be cementitious, suitable for additive processes and reinforced with composites. Fraunhofer IPA, meanwhile, is designing and building robotic devices that will facilitate the additive and subtractive processes. Two robotic end-effector tools will add and subtract material – an extruder system depositing material, while a subtractive tool will work to remove material and finish the built structures. ESTIA is in charge of writing the software that will power the all-in-one machine. It will control the cable root system and the additive and subtractive processes, supporting CAD, CAM, data management, and path optimisation and simulation modules.

HINDCON is also considering the bearing on the environment the development of this machine might have. Construction waste is a significant contributor of surplus materials that saturate public landfill spots, and so the HINDCON project is undertaking a life cycle assessment (LCA) ‘from cradle to grave’ to ensure use of primary energies, greenhouse gases, and freshwater resources aren’t excessive.

With its environmental proficiencies secured, it is then that HINDCON will look towards demonstrating the technology, replicating it and even potentially transferring it to other applications in other industries. But that represents another hurdle.

“Although the technology might be ready by the end of the project, the market for applications remain to be created, developed and sustained,” Dirrenberger concedes. “Part of the work of the HINDCON consortium is to convince key actors within the industry, to develop new practices based on this technology.”

That thought process serves to support the doing away with a ‘one size fits all’ approach, a trend occurring throughout the AM sector, and one seemingly applicable in the 3D construction printing market too. “Nobody produces The. Best. Car., so why should anybody produce The. Best. Construction 3D Printer?” Henrik Lund-Nielsen, 3D Printhuset CEO asks. “I think there will be lots of 3D construction printers out there, more or less suitable for each of their special type of buildings or structures.”

Those printers will likely either be controlled by a gantry system or a robotic arm – the former for the most ambitious builds, like The BOD, for example, and the latter for smaller structures, like the footbridge proof of concept that HINDCON will generate. Not all of the printers, however, will be the result of a dozen companies, each with their expertise, coming together in the way HINDCON is.

The alliance of 12 European outfits is a unique approach and one that could subsequently have a big impact on the utilisation of 3D printing technologies within the construction sector. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by 3D Printhuset, who stands at once as a leading applier and champion of 3D construction printing. Lund-Nielsen, despite some doubts, is encouraged by the collaboration between private enterprise and research institutions, as well as HINDCON’s ambition to deliver a next-generation system that builds on the progress already made by industry peers.

“Do I believe in the concept that they are applying? I think there might be better ways,” Lund-Nielsen confesses. “But I think any kind of common approach where you are applying the visionary technologies involved in 3D printing, whether it is a robot printer or a gantry printer, and then the knowledge institutions, the present conventional construction companies, they can use their experience and knowledge about what is the market demand, what is the market requesting, etc. I think it will lead to some useful results.”

Those results could be pivotal to a relatively niche market at a crossroads. The will is there to incorporate 3D printing to manufacture construction elements at scale, whether there’s a way, and perhaps, more importantly, a demand, remains to be seen. The likes of HINDCON, though, will do their utmost to make sure there is. 

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