Monday, December 16, 2013

3D Printed Bricks?

DESIGN-FABrication :: 3D printers generally print objects that when finished, fit within the confines of the print space. But what if you are building something bigger than the print space can fit? Some prints are broken into pieces, like old plastic model kits, and then assembled together to make objects 2 or 3 times bigger. But what if you were printing something much bigger? Like say a house?

3D printed structure -- proto-architecture...
We see large format printers being set up to print out massive modular pieces to build experimental homes, as well as massive printers that outright print entire buildings. Eventually, large scale printers will be possible through iterative fabrication, where you use your small desktop or garage fabricator to create larger, special purpose fabricators that are recycled back down when your project is complete. But until then, here's another proposal. Bricks.

I thought about how to use the average 3D printer to build architectural structures and thought about the smallest possible unit that could be produced in the print space to be used as building material. Bricks seemed to be the literal, perfect fit.

However, as Lauren Hockenson of Gigaom noted in her article "Want to 3D print your next home? It’ll take you 220 years to finish," it would take an enormous amount of time, plastic, and money ($332,820 in plastic) to build a two-story, 2,500-square-foot house out of 3D printed bricks.

But that's if you are printing a 2-story house out of dense, 100% solid plastic bricks. What if instead, you were going for something smaller, say a one-story shelter. And because it is only a single floor, you won't be needing solid bricks to bear anything but a roof. And what if you are crowd-sourcing this shelter from a couple of printers and using PLA sourced from local crops or recycled plastic. Could it be done for a reasonable price and within a reasonable amount of time?

To take things one step further, what if the 3D printer was used to simply print out a cast for your bricks, and parts for a plastic injection molding system? You could make the bricks much faster, and in any configuration you wanted.

Brick Configuration

Since you are printing the bricks, or the cast for your bricks, this allows you to make the bricks in any way you wish. Taking a cue from the structure of wood, we would want to include load-bearing structures running up and down in the form of tubes, as well as horizontal structures to resist sheering. You could also build-in conduits to run wires and pipes or embed sensors and microcontrollers.

3D printed bricks designed to mimic the basic structure of wood -- in terms of having vertical tubes to support compressive forces and horizontal tubes to handle shearing forces. Conduits were built into the design to allow wires to pass through the wall.
Using a 3D printer to make a mold would probably be more efficient, but test bricks could be printed first to test their engineering characteristics. Once the design is optimized, mass production could begin. Modifications could be made to molds, or custom bricks for specific features of the overall architectural design could be made as well.

What might a structure look like? Well, the most basic structure would be a simple box, like pictured below. Something could be used as a testbed to study structural integrity and various ways to take advantage of the different brick configurations made possible by printing them. Perhaps the entire structure could have embedded sensors, transmitters, and even power production and waste management capabilities. Each brick could be given a code and a means to communicate with others -- just like cells in a biological body -- and give the inhabitants detailed information about conditions inside and out.

Once the bricks themselves are fully optimized and their capabilities fully explored, architectural configurations could include just about any design traditional bricks are used for, so long as the engineering characteristics of the 3D bricks are appropriate. Take a look at a brick educational center in Rwanda featured in Dezeen Magazine not too long ago -- and imagine being able to print out the materials for your own version where ever you may be.

As 3D printing advances we may even see new ways of fabricating materials for architectural projects -- some to replicate traditional materials, and some that represent an entirely new way of constructing architecture. It will be the job of designers and inventors to continuously think about this as the technology evolves.