50 years ago, we architecture students joked about the day when we could just project a hologram of a building onto a piece of land then walk around with a spray gun shooting light-sensitive concrete in the air and voila! the completed structure. This was, of course, a fantasy then, however something quite like this is now on the verge of reality.
3D printing or additive manufacturing as it is sometimes called is the process of using something like a computer inkjet printer to create small three-dimensional objects. Standard Inkjet printers of course print ink on paper by moving a print head back and forth that deposits ink on a sheet of paper line-by-line with each pass of the printhead. 3-D printers do the same thing except instead of ink they use liquid plastic that hardens as soon as it comes out of the print head. Instead of printing on paper, the liquid plastic “prints” onto a surface that lowers slightly with each pass of the printhead. The 3-D item builds up, layer, by layer. So far, for the most part, this technology has been limited to small parts, however, around the world there are a few very large versions of these printers, large enough even, believe it or not, to “print” small buildings.
These building-sized “printers” have used materials like special concrete that activates as soon as it is deposited. Up until now, large frames, spanning over entire building areas have been required to the “print head” would have something from which to be suspended.
Today, in our architectural design studio, instead of traditional drawings, we create virtual models of our buildings in our computers. We build these virtual models piece by piece and then take screenshots of different views of the models to make the blueprints.
There is an obvious opportunity here. We could use virtual models similar to those we’re using now, to 3-D print the buildings and rather than use large framework machines, we could employ a group of small “print-head” robots moving around the job site and depositing their quick-setting materials according to the virtual model. There isn’t a need for the giant framework if all the robots use the same virtual model. Also, better materials are being developed for these machines, like nylons and epoxies. All the materials necessary for buildings are now or will soon be available.
We’re not quite there yet but these technical challenges are quickly coming together. Most of the hard work has been done; now it’s just time to coordinate and perfect that 50-year-old dream.