This is part three of a three-part series that highlights energy management innovations in the 3D printing space. They aren’t moonshots, we’re past that point in the Gartner Hype Cycle. They may not be as exciting as a fully-printed building, but these innovations or subsequent versions of them are likely to find their way into commercial spaces in your portfolio within the next decade. By making use of the advantages specific to additive manufacturing (another word for 3D printing), the researchers behind these devices have been able to make old inventions economically viable and new inventions possible.
By most accounts, an end-to-end process for 3D printing buildings is still pretty far away.
A company in China claims to have printed ten houses in a single day, but their products would be better described as house-shaped concrete boxes.
Another business – a startup in the Netherlands – is printing a more attractive home, but the process is slated to take three years and involves a lot of human participation.
Meanwhile, a startup in Chattanooga, Tennessee is making rapid progress toward what may be the more realistic goal of printing the scaffolding around which a wall can be built.
Instead of the struts and studs that make up the interior of most walls today, Branch Technology uses a lattice structure made up mostly of ABS plastic. The lattice has a significant advantage over traditional construction materials: It can be constructed into virtually any shape that an architect can imagine.
Once the wall is designed in architectural software like CAD, the lattice interior is then fabricated by a freeform 3D printer. Branch Technology’s printer is essentially a mechanical arm that holds a massive 3D pen.
The arm sits on a 10-meter-long track and can print structures up to 25 feet wide and 58 feet long, according to the industry publication 3D Printing Industry.
After the printing is finished, the walls are filled with insulating foam. Concrete is then troweled onto the outside for additional strength and stability. This process means that the walls are light and easy to move when they are being transported to a build site, but strong and insulating after they have been installed.
The strength of the walls is impressive. An unfilled, 1.5-pound wall piece can support 1500 pounds. With foam, the now-2.5-pound piece can support almost twice that. Once the concrete is applied to the outside, the walls can withstand pressures over 3,000 pounds per square inch, just like a regular concrete wall.
The implications for resource management during the construction process are clear. Branch Technology’s wall scaffolding requires significantly less resources than a traditional wall and no wood whatsoever. The walls are also lighter per square foot, meaning that less energy needs to be expended transporting them to a building site.
There are also some key advantages to this approach from an energy efficiency perspective that may be realized over the life of a building.
Branch Technology’s walls are able to better insulate buildings because they are filled with foam. Foam has a much higher R-value than the non-insulating solids traditionally used in construction like concrete. The design of these structures may even further contribute to building insulation by reducing thermal bridging, the process by which heat escapes through the least insulating parts of a wall – generally the wood studs.
Perhaps better than any of the other 3D printing innovations that we highlighted during this series, Branch Technology’s scaffoldings are an outstanding illustration of the Gartner Hype Curve.
The enthusiasm for additive manufacturing, particularly in the construction sector, peaked sometime between 2013 and 2014. This excitement inevitably fell flat as an industry that wasn’t yet ready for commercial deployment was unable to meet the public’s inflated expectations.
The industry toiled, and continues to toil, through the public’s diminished interest and is just now on the cusp of bearing real fruit, like the innovations highlighted in this series. Over the next few years, we expect to see a pickup in the number of commercially viable innovations coming out of this space as 3D printing climbs what Gartner calls the “slope of enlightenment” into the “plateau of productivity.”
We’re excited to see what happens next.
That’s all for our three-part series highlighting energy management innovations in the 3D printing space. Read part one, 3D Printing Next-Gen Heat Exchangers, part two, 3D Printing Energy-Efficient Façades, and join our mailing list for more insights into commercial resource management.