Getting into Shape: Using 3-D Printing Technology to Create Interlocking Blocks of Concrete
Niloufar Emami, assistant professor of architecture and holder of the A. Hays Town Professorship, has received the 2020 ARCC Research Incentive Award from the Architectural Research Centers Consortium for a research project on how to use 3D printing in novel ways to narrow the gap between design and fabrication:
The title of my project is “Flexi-Form: Design and Fabrication of Additive Flexible
Formwork for the Design of Concrete Interlocking Modules.” I know it’s a long title,
but let me explain:
We’re looking at how we can use 3D printing to create molds to pour concrete into. Whenever we use the term “additive,” we are referring to technologies that build 3D objects by adding layer upon layer of material; We use the term “formwork” for concrete. When your pour concrete, it’s liquid and malleable, so you need something to hold it before it sets and becomes a strong building material. Traditionally, wood is used for creating formworks, but that’s labor intensive and expensive while it limits the possible geometries that can be created. Some researchers have experimented with different types of fabrics, but now, with 3D printing, I wanted to explore the capabilities we have to create flexible formwork that can be used over and over again, almost like a rubber mold. The large format printer we use is called BigRep One 2, which is an FFF 3D printer. FFF stands for filament fused fabrication. We use a material called TPU, or Pro Flex, which is a flexible engineering-grade material. I will study how we can design the molds and 3D print them with this material, and how many times we can reuse the same formwork.
I have been a practicing architect for seven years, and have always noted the gap that exists between engineering and architecture.
Traditionally in industry, concrete has been cast in place as a continuous surface or has been built as regular precast elements that can be assembled on site. I’m looking at pouring it as precast elements that then can be interlocked together through the design of their geometry, and not necessarily male/female connections. That’s the “interlocking modules” part of the title. Doing this requires designing complex topologies and geometries.
I have been a practicing architect for seven years, and have always noted the gap that exists between engineering and architecture—engineers and architects each do their work and then try to make their work compatible sort of after the fact. There is also a gap between design and fabrication; designers don’t always understand fabrication, and it’s important to me to bridge these. You have to design using the methods of the future and consider the important fabrication parameters while you’re designing. This is an extension of my Ph.D. studies on interdisciplinary design—considering architecture, structural performance, and daylighting—and on this project, I wanted to have fabrication parameters in the mix.
Some of the questions I want to answer are: How feasible is it to use 3D printing to create formwork that allows architects be more creative with concrete? Also, we’re in the environment of academia, but if we can prove this method to be useful and efficient, how can we scale it up and transfer it to industry? Conventional construction methods always lag behind; this could be a way to push industry to use newer materials and newer methods.
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development